Bo Cutter explains how a well-meaning congressional process called “reconciliation” – intended to prevent filibuster on contentious budget bills – will stifle meaningful debate if it is misused to push Obama’s healthcare reform plans through Congress.
One of a limited number of dependable constants about government – which I will cover in these blogs and in time summarize as “the truth” – is that governments and congresses ultimately misuse perfectly good processes and institutions. Fannie Mae becomes an insider’s hustle. Carefully court-controlled surveillance becomes limitless illegal wiretapping. You get the idea. And so we come to reconciliation and healthcare.
Reconciliation is a MEGO (my eyes glaze over) word referring to a specific budget process. When it became part of the congressional budget vocabulary more than 20 years ago, it referred to something pretty straightforward. Congress passed an annual spending ceiling, but it completely lacked any way of insuring that the actual specific spending appropriated or authorized bore any relation to this target. So Congress created a process requiring that the spending actions of individual committees be “reconciled” with the overall targets it had already established. Get it? Reconciliation. I am admittedly a budget hawk, but I think that reconciliation was and is a good and admirable thing. Congress took responsibility for the consequences of its actions; the budgets of Congress became much more real; and America’s financial affairs became a bit more manageable. Not a Pauline epiphany, but not bad. I wasn’t smart enough to originate the notion, but I was around when it happened. And it was about budgets, nothing else.
Then we fast-forward a couple of decades. Entirely predictably, my dependable constant about government comes into play. The Democratic Congress of 2009 has the wonderful idea of applying “reconciliation” to healthcare. They will put a number in the budget; the healthcare committee will follow up with a healthcare plan; they will wrap it all up in a reconciliation vote – requiring 51 Senate votes for passage; and – whiz bang! – we have national healthcare and insurance. Does this process have anything to do with the original intention of reconciliation? Of course not. Does this process encourage healthy debate and civic involvement among Americans? Of course not. Does this process maximize elite insider influence? Of course it does. Will this process lead to the best health reform? Of course not–or only if, as my first boss used to say, you retain the capacity to believe 37 impossible things before breakfast. So why do they do it? Because they can.
I feel a need to be defensive. I am a Democrat. I’ve served in local Democratic Party office. I’ve given far more money than I ever would want to. I’ve worked in one way or another in every Democratic Presidential campaign since 1960. I’ve had real jobs in two Democratic presidents’ White Houses. I want healthcare reform. I worked with Hillary back in 1993 on it. I don’t care very much about the bleating of the currently brain-dead Republican Party on this question. But I’m also way too old and have seen too much to believe that ends-justify-means is a viable governing philosophy.
We are talking about 17 percent of GDP. We are talking about issues like cost and quality of healthcare that no one is close to having solved. We are talking about ramming the biggest single piece of domestic legislation in American history down our collective throats without any chance to debate it. Am I self-interested? Yes. Do I personally have views that run counter to the conventional wisdom likely to be jammed down our (my) throat? Yes. And I want a meaningful chance to speak to those views.
The point is that in America how we do things matters just as much as what we do. For any given president or Congress the “what” matters most. But for Americans – and the 233 year old American enterprise – the “how” matters just as much. Forget misusing reconciliation. Let’s debate the damned thing – both the policy and the country will be better for it.
Braintruster Bo Cutter is a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team.