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Legislative Process 101—Budget Reconciliation

Winning the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia was a huge step towards rebalancing political power in Congress. 

Now with a 50/50 split in the Senate and Vice President Harris as the tie breaker, Democrats have 51 votes to pass their legislative priorities. This leaves Democrats three options 

  1. Engage in bad faith negotiations with Republicans and pass meager and sometimes harmful bipartisan legislation. 
  2. Use the budget reconciliation process, which only requires 51 votes to pass, but has severe limitations 
  3. Eliminate the filibuster and pass bold comprehensive legislation! (this is the one we want; see more on eliminating the filibuster here)

Because not all 50 Democratic Senators have yet agreed to abolish the filibuster, Senate Democrats are moving forward with plans to use Budget Reconciliation to pass first a COVID Relief Package followed by a COVID Recovery Package.

Senator Sanders is the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and has vowed to push the bounds of what can be accomplished through reconciliation. Pushing the boundaries of what is possible is good, but even with creative interpretations of the rules, there are critical things like structural democracy reform that we know can’t be done through reconciliation. 

Normally, the Senate requires a 60-vote majority to pass any legislation—a high bar that makes it hard for the Senate to quickly pass major pieces of legislation. Budget Reconciliation, often referred to as just reconciliation, is a legislative maneuver that allows the majority to get around this 60-vote threshold. Reconciliation lets the Senate majority bypass the filibuster process, allowing them to pass legislation with 51 votes, instead of the normal 60. This document explains how reconciliation works.

What is Reconciliation?

Reconciliation is a budget process. When the Budget Committee creates their annual Budget Resolution, they can choose to include reconciliation instructions to committees. These instructions tell committees what budget acts (increase revenue, cut spending, etc) they need to do to accomplish what’s outlined in the Budget Resolution. 

Committees do not have to follow the suggestions given to them by the Budget Committee but cannot spend more money. Once committees return their text, the Budget Committee reports it to the floor for a vote.

Any provision in a Reconciliation bill must be primarily budgetary, severely limited the scope of a policy that can be passed this way. In fact, reconciliation bills have to go through a ‘Byrd Bath’ to ensure they are compliant with all the reconciliation rules. If a reconciliation bill isn’t compliant with the Byrd Rule it loses its privileged status and has to pass via normal order, meaning it will be subject to a filibuster. 

However, if a reconciliation bill is compliant with Byrd, it only requires a simple majority in order to pass.

The Reconciliation Timeline

Congress can only use one reconciliation bill per budget resolution.

  • Congress creates a budget resolution which is a  budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year.
  • The resolution can include reconciliation instructions to committees detailing budgetary changes they need to make.
  • Committees return their plans to accomplish the directions given to them to the Budget Committee.
  • The Budget Committee compiles these plans and meets with the parliamentarian to hear how she will rule on provisions that may violate the Byrd Rule. 
  • The Budget Committee bring the bill to a floor for a vote
  • Provisions that won’t be upheld are generally removed from the package.
  • Finally, the full chamber votes on the bill, and it’s passed by a simple majority.

If you can pass one reconciliation bill per budget why are we passing two bills this year?

For FY 2021 Congress did not pass a reconciliation bill. This happens all the time, but it means that the Senate can pass one reconciliation bill for FY 2021 and a second reconciliation bill for FY 2022!

Vote-A-Rama

You may have heard the term vote-a-rama tossed around when discussing budget reconciliation. Reconciliation has a 20 hour limit on debate but no limit on the number of amendments that can be considered. Once the 20 hours of debate has expired the rest of the amendments are voted on back-to back. Budget Resolutions and Reconciliation bills cannot be voted on for final passage until all amendments are voted on. This means the Senate has to cram a ton of voting into a short period of time which is why this process is referred to as a vote-a-rama. 

Reconciliation matters the most in the Senate

Reconciliation bills in the House and Senate are both given priority, but it is in the Senate that has dramatic procedural changes when considering a reconciliation bill. The most impactful procedural change is that debate in the Senate is limited to 20 hours, which eliminates the ability to filibuster the measure. With a Senate that is split 50/50 with the Vice President casting the tie breaking vote, the filibuster can stop Democrats from enacting their legislative agenda. Reconciliation provides a pathway way to avoid that for a limited number of policies.