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Reconciliation is a legislative process of the United States Senate intended to allow consideration of a budget bill with debate limited to twenty hours under Senate rules. Reconciliation also exists in the United States House of Representatives, but because the House regularly passes rules that constrain debate and amendment, the process has had a less significant impact on that body.
A reconciliation instruction is a provision in a budget resolution directing one or more committees to submit legislation changing existing law in order to bring spending, revenues, or the debt ceiling into conformity with the budget resolution. The instructions specify the committees to which they apply, indicate the appropriate dollar changes to be achieved, and usually provide a deadline by which the legislation is to be reported or submitted.
A reconciliation bill is a bill containing changes in law recommended pursuant to reconciliation instructions in a budget resolution. If the instructions pertain to only one committee in a chamber, that committee reports the reconciliation bill. If the instructions pertain to more than one committee, the House Budget Committee reports an omnibus reconciliation bill, but it may not make substantive changes in the recommendations of the other committees.
The reconciliation process arose from the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. Over time, it has developed into a procedure for implementing the policy decisions and assumptions embraced in a budget resolution in a way that was unforeseen when the Budget Act was enacted. Under the original design of the Budget Act, reconciliation had a fairly narrow purpose: it was expected to be used together with the second budget resolution adopted in the fall, was to apply to a single fiscal year, and be directed primarily at spending and revenue legislation acted on between the adoption of the first and second budget resolutions.
Although reconciliation was originally understood to be for the purpose of improving the government's fiscal position (reducing deficits or increasing surpluses), the language of the 1974 act referred only to "changes" in revenue and spending amounts, not specifically to increases or decreases. Former Parliamentarian of the Senate Robert Dove has stated that reconciliation -
|“||was never used for that purpose. But in 1975, just a year after it had passed, a very canny Senate committee chairman, Russell Long of Louisiana, came in to the Parliamentarian's Office, and he kept having trouble with his tax bills because of the Senate rules. People were offering amendments to them that he didn't like. They were debating them at length, and he didn't like that. And he saw in the Budget Act a way of getting around those pesky little problems. And he convinced the Parliamentarian at the time—I was the assistant—that the very first use of reconciliation should be to protect his tax cut bill.||”|
Congress has used the procedure to enact omnibus budget bills, first in 1980. Between 1980 and 2009, 17 of 23 reconciliation bills have been signed into law by Republican presidents (a Republican was president for 20 of those 29 years). Since 1980, reconciliation has been used nine times when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, six times when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, one time when the Democrats controlled the Senate and the Republicans the House, and seven times when the Republicans controlled the Senate and the Democrats controlled the House. Reconciliation has been used at least once nominally for a non-budgetary purpose (for example, see the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, when a Republican was president and the Democrats controlled Congress). The 1986 Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA) contained some health care provisions.
The Byrd Rule (as described below) was adopted in 1985 and amended in 1990. Its main effect has been to prohibit the use of reconciliation for provisions that would increase the deficit beyond 10 years after the reconciliation measure.
Congress used reconciliation to enact President Bill Clinton's 1993 (fiscal year 1994) budget. (See Pub.L. 103–66, 107 Stat. 312.) Clinton wanted to use reconciliation to pass his 1993 health care plan, but Senator Robert Byrd insisted that the health care plan was out of bounds for a process that is theoretically about budgets.
In 1997, Congress passed the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 which was a reconciliation bill that reduced taxes and hence increased the deficit, but was paired with the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (H.R. 2014 and H.R. 2015 respectively), each signed by President Clinton. In 1999, the Congress for the first time used reconciliation to pass legislation that would increase deficits without a companion bill that reduced spending (thereby ignoring the bill from 1975): the Taxpayer Refund and Relief Act 1999. This act was passed when the Government was expected to run large surpluses. It was subsequently vetoed by President Bill Clinton. A similar situation happened in 2000, when the Senate again used reconciliation to pass the Marriage Tax Relief Reconciliation Act 2000, which was also vetoed by Clinton. At the time, the use of the reconciliation procedure to pass such bills was controversial.
During the administration of President George W. Bush, Congress used reconciliation to enact three major tax cuts. These tax cuts were set to lapse after 10 years to fulfill the requirements of the Byrd Rule which prohibits legislation that increases the deficit after the time period covered by the budget resolution (section 313 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974).
The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 (H.R. 4872) is a reconciliation bill passed by the 111th United States Congress to make changes to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama on March 30, 2010.
To trigger the reconciliation process, Congress passes a concurrent resolution on the budget instructing one or more committees to report changes in law affecting the budget by a certain date. If the budget instructs more than one committee, then those committees send their recommendations to the Budget Committee of their House, and the Budget Committee packages the recommendations into a single omnibus bill. In the Senate, the reconciliation bill then gets only 20 hours of debate and amendments are limited. Only one reconciliation bill can be passed in any given year.
Reconciliation generally involves legislation that changes the budget deficit (or conceivably, the surplus). The "Byrd Rule" (2 U.S.C. § 644, named after Democratic Senator Robert Byrd) was adopted in 1985 and amended in 1990 to outline which provisions reconciliation can and cannot be used for. The Byrd Rule defines a provision to be "extraneous" (and therefore ineligible for reconciliation) in six cases:
Any senator may raise a procedural objection to a provision believed to be extraneous, which will then be ruled on by the Presiding Officer, customarily on the advice of the Senate Parliamentarian. A vote of 60 senators is required to overturn the ruling. The Presiding Officer need not necessarily follow the advice of the Parliamentarian, and the Parliamentarian can be replaced by the Senate Majority Leader. The Vice President as President of the Senate can overrule the parliamentarian, but this has not been done since 1975.
Reconciliation bills have included:
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