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The Irony of Reconciliation

Democrats’ response to Republican objections to using reconciliation to pass health care reform should be clear: enjoy the deja vu. After all, GOP objectors could not be more fundamentally hypocritical.

According to the Brookings Institution, reconciliation bills were passed by Congress 22 times between 1980 and 2008. Republicans controlled the Senate for 18 of those years (1981-1987, 1995-2007) and controlled the House for 14 (1995-2007). Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Acts in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989 and 1990 were all passed by split majorities, and all brought major changes to federal expenditures, including both spending outlays and reductions. All were signed by the President—first Ronald Reagan, then George H.W. Bush.

Even when party control was divided between the houses of Congress as well as between the executive and legislative branches of government, reconciliation was seen as a way to demonstrate progress to the American people. When asked under what circumstances the GOP would work with a Democratic chief executive, Republican leaders often cite their leadership on welfare reform during the contentious 1990s. Called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, welfare reform was enacted via -- you guessed it -- reconciliation by a GOP-led Congress and signed into law by President Clinton.

There were also three GOP-initiated uses of reconciliation during the two terms of President George W. Bush—in 2001, 2003 and 2005. None, sadly, were revenue- or budget-neutral. Indeed, since the bills brought a tax windfall to the top 1% of American income earners yet were not accompanied by cuts in spending, the reconciliation-generated laws boosted federal debt by nearly $1 trillion.

The GOP argument against using reconciliation for health care reform is that medicine, insurance and the American people’s health is too important, too monumental, to be left to a 51-seat Senate majority. But were the federal deficits of the 1980s not monumental? Was welfare reform, which altered the lives of tens of millions of Americans, not monumental?

No, what we really have is the Republican minority making hay out of a straw issue. They would have a lot more credibility if they honestly told the American people that they support reconciliation when they favor bills and do not support it when they don't. At least they would therefore be straightforward in their hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, the irony of reconciliation itself is that little is actually reconciled between the political parties -- beyond the usual prescription of bitterness, agitation and obstructionism that leaves the American people furious at government and worse off than before. The GOP and the Tea Party members can distort polls however they wish; they can subdivide their ranks (what with the likes of William Bennett and Mark Levin voicing concerns about Glenn Beck's speech to the CPAC convention) to their heart's content. With the right-wing eager to make gains in the midterm elections, perhaps it's unreasonable to expect the GOP to own up to its past on reconciliation.

But history -- unlike political parties -- will not lie.

Leonard Jacobs is a writer and editor of The Clyde Fitch Report and a frequent contributor to the Fox Forum.