So what's the big deal about a simple majority vote?

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If history is any guide, perhaps Senate Democrats should have pushed through health care reform with a simple majority vote awhile ago.

Under current law, according to the Congressional Research Service, The U.S. Senate can pass measures by simple majority rule if it is voting on “budget resolution policies affecting mainly permanent spending and revenue programs.”

Seems to me that health care costs are about as permanent as death and taxes.

This process of simple majority rule is called reconciliation though it has nothing to do with the two parties of Congress reconciling irreconcilable differences.

Notes National Public Radio, “By writing Obama’s health care plan as a budget bill, Democrats can prevent a Republican filibuster in the Senate and advance the bill with a simple majority instead of the 60-vote supermajority they no longer have.”

In today’s utterly partisan environment, reconciliation seems essential to getting much of anything done. The alternative  is to allow a 41-vote minority of the Senate to bluster, obfuscate and block any piece of legislation in perpetuity that it doesn’t like.

So does this concept of a simple majority vote somehow undermine the historical foundations of American democracy?  Does it make a mockery of the rules of Congress? Is it a threat to the nation?

In a letter to President Obama Monday, NPR reports, Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch wrote: “The use of expedited reconciliation process to push through more dramatic changes to a health care bill of such size, scope and magnitude is unprecedented.”

Only NPR also reports that Hatch is simply wrong — dead wrong.

Ever heard of COBRA?  It’s the system that allows workers to hold onto their health insurance for a transition period if they lose a job. So where did it come from?  It was one amendment of the vast Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) of 1985, NPR reports, though it didn’t take effect until the next year. That same law included legislation that required hospitals to accept Medicare or Medicaid payments for patients who showed up in emergency rooms but were unable to pay.  That, too, was a big deal.

Two big pieces of the health care puzzle, in other words, both passed through reconciliation.

And there’s lots more, NPR reports. It even supplies this nifty chart on its web site:

For 30 years, major changes to health care laws have passed via the budget reconciliation process. Here are a few examples:

1982 — TEFRA: The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act first opened Medicare to HMOs

1986 — COBRA: The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act allowed people who were laid off to keep their health coverage, and stopped hospitals from dumping ER patients unable to pay for their care

1987 — OBRA ’87: Added nursing home protection rules to Medicare and Medicaid, created no-fault vaccine injury compensation program

1989 — OBRA ’89: Overhauled doctor payment system for Medicare, created new federal agency on research and quality of care

1990 — OBRA ’90: Added cancer screenings to Medicare, required providers to notify patients about advance directives and living wills, expanded Medicaid to all kids living below poverty level, required drug companies to provide discounts to Medicaid

1993 — OBRA ’93: created federal vaccine funding for all children

1996 — Welfare Reform: Separated Medicaid from welfare

1997 — BBA: The Balanced Budget Act created the state-federal childrens’ health program called CHIP

2005 — DRA: The Deficit Reduction Act reduced Medicaid spending, allowed parents of disabled children to buy into Medicaid.

Julie Rovner ends her excellent historic overview on NPR with these words: “In fact, over the past three decades, the number of major health financing measures that were NOT passed via budget reconciliation can be counted on one hand …. Using the (reconciliation) process to try to pass a health overhaul bill might not be easy. But it won’t be unprecedented.”

So enough of the dance marathon already. It’s time to push a vote, Democrats. Come November, the public can register either its pleasure or displeasure with the outcome. But there’s one thing that Democrats, who do still hold significant majorities in both houses, can be sure of. Tthe American people are smart enough to know that paralysis is not a policy.

It’s far better for the country — and for pure political preservation — to take a chance and fail than to simply stand pat.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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15 Responses to So what's the big deal about a simple majority vote?

  1. andylevinson says:

    Jerry, the democrats made the rules…it will be voted on by a simple majority as all bills are….to break a filibuster you need 60 votes

    Nobody want this job killing bill….they want jobs

    NPR was quick to find all this information…but have no interest in finding obama’s birth certificate or college grades which are well hidden

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Andy,
      Obama’s birth certificate is posted on a web site in Hawaii and have been for a long time. I’m sure you can get his grades as well, which given his intelligence and role at the Harvard law review are undoubtedly very, very good.

      As for “job-killing” bills, I’d say that giving 30 million more people health care won’t kill jobs, but may save the lives of some who’ve lost jobs and have no health care today because of it. I can’t speak for just who wants this bill but it’s certainly not nobody. Count me as one.

  2. Mr. Lanson,

    The simple majority issue in the Senate is not so simple. Both parties like having the ability to block the vote on any legislation – *when they are in the minority*. The Democrats, while currently in the majority, were not that long ago in the minority and used their undemocratic power to block bills they opposed by preventing a vote on the bill. The Republicans of course cried “Foul” but now that they are in the minority, they of course have re-discovered the beauty of this gambit and are using it to their best advantage.

    No one wants to lose the power to block any piece of legislation as the minority party.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Realize that it’s no cakewalk David. That’s why I ended by saying it’s better to take the chance and fail than to simply stand pat. It does strike me that filibusters have become so crippling we need to find a better way to get things done. Everything gets filibustered.

      • Mr. Lanson,

        Oh, I agree. During the younger Mr. Bush’s administration some Senate Republican were talking about “Going Nuclear” and repealing the Senate Rule that requires a 60 vote for closing debate. The Democrats were filibustering some appointment or another. I was all for it but the ability to filibuster can give any Senator (and both parties) veto power. No one in either party wants to lose that.

  3. davejacobs says:

    So as I understand it, the thesis of this article is that “reconciliation” is not anti-democratic because it’s been done before. That doesn’t seem like a legitimate argument to me. And I’ve looked hard, but I don’t think I’m arguing against a strawman here. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

    I hardly think that the way to get past partisanship is to use congressional loopholes to push bills that much of America may not want. We are a democratic republic, which means that we try to represent the greatest percentage of the population we can, and not just 50%. There is a reason so many senators should have to agree on a bill as sweeping as this one, and that reason is that if 49.99% of Americans disagree with an American law, it probably should not exist. And it doesn’t make sense that a simple majority should be able to decide on this issue, one that many senators are not apt to understand fully. It shouldn’t be left up to a simple majority especially if it’s going to affect every single American.

    How can you call a decision democratic if it’s actually only representing 50.01% of the people it’s supposed to represent? By citing past decisions that have used “reconciliation”?

    I’m a pluralist and think that rather than rushing or pushing, we should strive to talk things out, compromise (yes, the Democrats are half of the partisan problem, Obama’s rhetoric notwithstanding), and think about what’s best for every American citizen.

    Finally, I want to respond to your closing ideas:

    “Tthe American people are smart enough to know that paralysis is not a policy.”

    “It’s far better for the country — and for pure political preservation — to take a chance and fail than to simply stand pat.”

    First, I would ask: Are you smart enough to know the difference between paralysis and steady/slow progress?

    And regarding the binary of “taking a chance” versus “standing pat”, I would say those are not the only two choices. We can take our time, make a solid bill, and end up with something that 70% of people are thrilled about. And something that we can be proud of.

    Thoughts?

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      David,

      Thanks for a thoughtful, well-articulated response. I still must disgree.

      1. You seem to suggest that 50.01 percent is not a majority. Why not? Since when should 40.01 percent of a population dictate what 59.99 percent do or don’t do?
      2. YOu seem to suggest that the role of Congress is to simply take a poll of popular opinion and vote accordingly. (“We are a democratic republic, which means that we try to represent the greatest percentage of the population we can, and not just 50%.”) That presumes 50 percent (or 55 percent) actually knows what it wants. With health care, there’s considerable evidence it does not. For one thing, the public knows much less about the facts of health care reform than those maybe-clueless senators you talk about. We live in a universe of spin and something as complex as health care can’t be explained in a sound bite. Recent polls, for example, show substantial majorities of the public support such things as providing coverage for all Americans regardless of pre-existing conditions, yet they oppose health care reform overall. What they don’t understand is that no system can work if it ONLY insures those with the greatest medical need AT THAT TIME.

      I’m curious. Do you really believe that reason prevails in this kind of debate? That money has no affect? Do you expect the amount of money poured into the fight by insurance companies buys no influence?

      3. If, as you suggest, the Senate should always vote what the people want, then how come the people have to live with what 60 percent of the Senate wants. And why is it that the Senate in fact doesn’t represent the population anyway?

      Each state has two senators, whether Demcratic California with a population of 37 million or Republican Wyoming with a population of a half million. Hardly seems fair to me, but that IS something the Constitution called for even though it clearly helps the more rural Republican-leaning heartland.

      4. To suggest that we are making steady, slow progress on health care is simply not true. We’re making no progress at all outside the Democratic Party. We’ve been discussing health care reform for the better part of a century. To me, and I’m not alone here, it’s absolutely obvious that the Republican Party’s only goal is to block any real reform on health care. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint virtually announced this at the beginning of the process. Stop Obama on health care, he said, and we win. That’s a hell of way to run a railroad, let alone a government.

      5. If reconciliation has been used a score or more times, sometimes for health care, certainly for George Bush’s tax cuts, who is define its precise parameters and who is to say they are locked in concrete? The Supreme Court recently ruled 5-4 that corporations can’t be restrained in their giving to political campaigns. I personally thought it was a terrible decision. You might argue it was simply the court interpreting the Constitution. Nothing but the law here. In truth, the majority of justices have been appointed by Republican presidents, and they chose a decision that reversed a couple of decades of precedents.

      6.Finally, as my learned colleague Rick Ungar points out in this essay

      http://trueslant.com/rickungar/2010/02/26/let%e2%80%99s-get-it-straight-on-reconciliation/

      both houses of Congress have in fact already passed health care bills. If the House Democrats were to pass the Senate bill as is tomorrow it would become law when the president signed it. I for one wish The House would do just that, but it’s not likely to unless the Senate made adjustments. This is where reconciliation comes in. The adjustments have to be budgetary in nature. And the interpretation of this is tricky. But a variety of learned journalists such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman have made clear that the long-term impact of health care reform is in fact budgetary and would in fact bring down the deficit in time.

      Yes, it’s really complicated stuff. But no, doing nothing is not the answer.
      As the president noted the other day in a response to Sen. John McCain, the election is over. Democrats can and should do what they promised. It was the basis of their being elected. If the public doesn’t like it once it’s in place, they’ll throw the Democrats out and the Republicans can undo what they’ve done. But to cower in front of a straw man of “Constitutionality” in the face of plenty of precedent to the contrary is wrong.

      • David J. says:

        Hi Jerry, thanks for the response.

        Maybe I wasn’t clear on a couple of points, so let me respond to what you’ve said.

        “1. You seem to suggest that 50.01 percent is not a majority. Why not? Since when should 40.01 percent of a population dictate what 59.99 percent do or don’t do?”

        I’m not saying that 50.01% is not a majority, I’m saying that a margin of 0.01% (so… a sliver of the population) should not be enough to completely overhaul the nation’s healthcare infrastructure in a particular way. I would say 95% of Americans think the system should be overhauled. But the complicated, government-centric way it’s being done now isn’t acceptable to maybe half of all folks. Meaning we should find a better, more inclusive (and well-thought-out) way.

        So I’m saying that 50.01% is a majority, yes, but that majority doesn’t equal unanimous mandate.

        “2. YOu seem to suggest that the role of Congress is to simply take a poll of popular opinion and vote accordingly. (”We are a democratic republic, which means that we try to represent the greatest percentage of the population we can, and not just 50%.”) That presumes 50 percent (or 55 percent) actually knows what it wants. With health care, there’s considerable evidence it does not. For one thing, the public knows much less about the facts of health care reform than those maybe-clueless senators you talk about. We live in a universe of spin and something as complex as health care can’t be explained in a sound bite.”

        I completely agree with you that the American public doesn’t have the facts straight. Neither side of the spectrum does. Even a lot of intelligent people I know have no idea about the far-reaching implications of the overhaul.

        In my mind, that means that the first goal should be to really make it clear what we’re trying to accomplish here, and not just with soundbites (McCain’s or Obama’s). It’s hard for me to think that we should allow representatives elected by clueless voters to decide our nation’s history before considering all the facts and being able to explain the bill (exactly) to their constituents. (If you can’t teach something clearly and accurately, you don’t understand it yourself.)

        “Recent polls, for example, show substantial majorities of the public support such things as providing coverage for all Americans regardless of pre-existing conditions, yet they oppose health care reform overall. What they don’t understand is that no system can work if it ONLY insures those with the greatest medical need AT THAT TIME.”

        It may very well be that Americans oppose *this* version of health reform but don’t reject the idea. At least, that’s my impression of things.

        “I’m curious. Do you really believe that reason prevails in this kind of debate? That money has no affect? Do you expect the amount of money poured into the fight by insurance companies buys no influence?”

        I think that money is a red herring here. It may play a role, and on both sides, too (big pharma can remain big pharma if the industry is heavily regulated). So we shouldn’t rush into anything without a solid, rational framework for things. If the public clearly understands what it’s getting into here, then money shouldn’t be as much of an issue. (In other words, transparency solves the money problem.)

        “3. If, as you suggest, the Senate should always vote what the people want, then how come the people have to live with what 60 percent of the Senate wants. And why is it that the Senate in fact doesn’t represent the population anyway?”

        Here, I’m merely pointing out that this isn’t democracy. Real democracy involves real conversation and not politicking. I’m not saying that real democracy happens often. I’m saying that you can’t really call this “reconciliation” democratic or good.

        “Each state has two senators, whether Demcratic California with a population of 37 million or Republican Wyoming with a population of a half million. Hardly seems fair to me, but that IS something the Constitution called for even though it clearly helps the more rural Republican-leaning heartland.”

        I’m sure you’re aware that this is the reason we have a bicameral legislature. To strike a balance between equal footing of states and equal footing of persons.

        “4. To suggest that we are making steady, slow progress on health care is simply not true. We’re making no progress at all outside the Democratic Party.”

        I usually vote Democrat, but I have to say I don’t think the Democrats are making much progress. Maybe I should rephrase what I said before. I meant to say that we may be temporarily paralyzed (because of politicking), but that isn’t an excuse to override democracy. Rather, we should aim for slow progress rather than the quick, easy, underhanded push forward.

        “We’ve been discussing health care reform for the better part of a century. To me, and I’m not alone here, it’s absolutely obvious that the Republican Party’s only goal is to block any real reform on health care. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint virtually announced this at the beginning of the process. Stop Obama on health care, he said, and we win. That’s a hell of way to run a railroad, let alone a government.”

        I agree that the Republicans are playing the partisan game. But so are the Dems, who haven’t made any real concessions to the Republicans as far as I know. Also, the Dems seem to ignore the Republicans’ viewpoints, so I can understand why the Republicans would be upset. I think that as the party in power, the Dems should be the first to concede to the Republicans and admit that the health care bill could be flawed.

        “5. If reconciliation has been used a score or more times, sometimes for health care, certainly for George Bush’s tax cuts, who is define its precise parameters and who is to say they are locked in concrete? The Supreme Court recently ruled 5-4 that corporations can’t be restrained in their giving to political campaigns. I personally thought it was a terrible decision. You might argue it was simply the court interpreting the Constitution. Nothing but the law here. In truth, the majority of justices have been appointed by Republican presidents, and they chose a decision that reversed a couple of decades of precedents.”

        Actually, I would suggest reading Glenn Greenwald’s piece on the subject. He is certainly no friend to Republicans but is a constitutional lawyer. He looks at the decision (in a deep, convincing way) and concludes the decision directly follows from the Constitution:

        http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/01/22/citizens_united/index.html

        “both houses of Congress have in fact already passed health care bills. If the House Democrats were to pass the Senate bill as is tomorrow it would become law when the president signed it. I for one wish The House would do just that, but it’s not likely to unless the Senate made adjustments. This is where reconciliation comes in. The adjustments have to be budgetary in nature. And the interpretation of this is tricky. But a variety of learned journalists such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman have made clear that the long-term impact of health care reform is in fact budgetary and would in fact bring down the deficit in time.”

        I don’t think anyone is willing to say Paul Krugman is an objective source of analysis. Setting that aside, I think it’s disingenuous to say that the health care bill is *primarily* budgetary in nature. (If we say that anything that affects the budget at all is reconcilable, then we can use this technique to override the very rules of Congress or *every* bill.)

        “Yes, it’s really complicated stuff. But no, doing nothing is not the answer.”

        Agreed, but as I said, it’s not a Yes/No decision. It’s as Yes/No/Not yet decision, and I think that we should wait until we have a better, clearer, simpler, and popular bill before we radically alter our nation’s future. (We want to do this thing right. There is no rush.)

        “As the president noted the other day in a response to Sen. John McCain, the election is over. Democrats can and should do what they promised. It was the basis of their being elected.”

        I definitely have to disagree with you here. In a two-party election, a single issue is never the decider. I voted for Obama because I was afraid of Palin and Obama said he was in favor of gay rights. This doesn’t mean I support his economic or health care plans. The same is true for plenty of Americans in every election.

        “If the public doesn’t like it once it’s in place, they’ll throw the Democrats out and the Republicans can undo what they’ve done.”

        I have to strongly disagree here. The public didn’t like what George Bush did in Iraq or Afghanistan, but we’re still there and not pulling out quickly at all. Who knows? If Obama doesn’t pull out fast enough and a Republican’s elected again, the war might go on for a long time.

        I don’t count on our two-party system to monitor itself very well. Doesn’t have a good track record. As you say, there’s too much money involved.

        “But to cower in front of a straw man of “Constitutionality” in the face of plenty of precedent to the contrary is wrong.”

        I disagree. Precedent should have no weight here. Either the process is democratic or it isn’t. If it’s not and is just a loophole, clearly it’s not ethical or good for us as citizens. (If only because it destroys democracy just a little more.)

      • Jerry Lanson says:

        It’s really interesting to discuss this with you David. You are, I would say, an idealist in the best sense of the word. We take different approaches. I tend, in my personal and profesional life, to fight hard for what I believe, but then seek the best compromise possible (unless it is cynical and doesn’t move forward the idea I’m fighting for). I agree that both parties are influenced by money (no question), and I’m certainly not holding up the Democrats as paragons of virtue in this debate. But to me, the Republican Party has been abominable. I believe Obama held his summit to show the country just how unwilling Republicans are to compromise in any way. The only Republican plan I’ve heard of would allow people to buy health insurance across state lines and insure maybe 3 million more Americans. That’s about it. It doesn’t come close to a real alternative that can be negotiated. In that case, the Congress has two choices. Hope that years more of talking will lead to a solution in the face of an industry so powerful that 1 in 6 American dollars is spent on health care. Or get started. Put in an imperfect law. Do so despite the displeasure of the Republicans and, probably — right this moment — the majority of the American public. To me leaders need to listen first but then act. That’s their job. That’s why we elect them. If Lincoln had not acted, how long would slavery have remained? If Truman had not — and had I been alive I certainly would have chastised him for dropping the bomb — how long would the second World War have dragged on. My point with the second example is that action is not always right action. We certainly need look no further than Iraq (the verdict on Afghanistan2 is still out). Still, though, we have an effectively paralyzed government today. It leads me to question the very structure of our democracy and wonder whether the parliamentarians have it right.

        As the product of a Quaker college I greatly respect your approach, to keep talking until we can all approach some kind of consensus. Sadly, in today’s poisonous political environment, I don’t believe that’s possible.

      • David J. says:

        Jerry, I think you’re right that I’m an idealist living in a non-ideal world. That said, I can definitely be practical.

        I guess what motivated me to respond to your post is that I don’t want us (as liberals) to champion this devious loophole as democratic or valiant, when in fact, it’s just a loophole.

        I think that eventually, tough, practical decisions will have to be made. But I’m very afraid of giving the government any more power over me as a person right now, especially as regards health care.

        Specific (and practical) point:

        I think that part of the problem with dialogue comes from the Dems not admitting that regulation is (*shocker*) not always the answer! It can even hurt the little guy and stifle competition/progress. It’s not well known that regulation promotes big business because it’s harder for the little guys to keep lawyers who can abide by all government regulations. (On the other hand, big businesses have no trouble hiring lawyers to find loopholes in those regulations.)

        Surely what the insurance industry needs is competition and transparency, not regulation. (Look what it’s done for computers and phones!) I’m hard-core liberal and I can admit this.

        If we regulate insurance companies (who, I completely agree, are evil… but still do good) to the point that they can’t make money, what good are we doing ourselves? If we regulate insurance companies to the point that no little insurance companies can enter the market, what good are we doing ourselves?

        Practically, a highly regulated insurance company is an inefficient one. It’s not providing as much healthcare as it could because it’s paying high taxes, paying for lawyers to get around government regulations, etc. With competition (but maybe *simple* regulations against things like cream-skimming), insurance companies provide a better service (and better customer service). They want to win customers, who, because there is competition, know they have good options! (Unlike we do here in Massachusetts.)

        Maybe we shouldn’t argue over this too much. My main point is to demonstrate that the Dems aren’t conceding points that I (as a Dem) am willing to concede. Meaning that they are being highly partisan. And a partisan simple majority shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions for the entire country.

        Does that make sense?

        PS You might consider “calling out” comments from your readers to make us want to come back 🙂 Thanks for the good discussion, and cheers.

  4. Jerry Lanson says:

    Your called out, sir. I’m heading out or I’d chat more.

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