Seemingly spent on all their absurd arguments about the substance of health-care reform (death panels! socialism!), Republicans have now moved on to making absurd arguments about the process of health-care reform, namely that circumventing the filibuster is like spitting on James Madison's grave (just to clarify, the filibuster is not in the Constitution). But when you listen to them talk, you quickly notice that they never make a real, substantive argument in favor of the filibuster. Indeed, the word "filibuster" doesn't pass their lips too often. They'll disingenuously characterize the use of reconciliation as some kind of extraordinary, unusual, unconscionable power play in which legislation is "rammed through" (after only a year of debate!), but they won't say exactly why filibusters are good. A 60-vote supermajority is just presented as the norm, and departing from the norm is said to be a problem.
Yes, the hypocrisy here is impossible to ignore. And of course it's true that you can find quotes from Democrats defending the filibuster. But nearly all of these come from the 2005 battle over a small number of George W. Bush's judicial nominations -- a uniquely radical group, if you'll recall. In that case, the question was whether the filibuster should be discarded for judicial nominations. Even if you don't like the filibuster, there is a strong argument why those nominations should be subject to a 60-vote requirement. Judicial nominations are for life -- the only way to remove a federal judge is impeachment, which has only happened 14 times in American history. In that 2005 debate, Republicans wanted to keep the filibuster for everything but judicial appointments, which is exactly backward.
But back to the present. The latest argument from Republicans is that we shouldn't allow health-care reform to be passed via reconciliation, because health care is a really big issue. "One-sixth of the economy!" they cry. But the problem with this argument is that reconciliation will actually not be used to pass health-care reform. The first step, before we get to reconciliation, is for the House to pass the health-care reform bill that already passed the Senate. Read the last part of that sentence again: the health-care reform bill that already passed the Senate. A bill already passed the Senate, with those 60 votes that Republicans seem to think separate legitimate legislation from illegitimate legislation. If the House passes the Senate's bill, and Obama signs it, then health-care reform has passed Congress, filibuster and all. What will happen afterward through reconciliation is a series of adjustments to the reform that passed Congress -- more generous subsidies, likely a reduction or delay in the excise tax, and a number of other things. But reconciliation will not be used to pass health-care reform; it will be used to fiddle with the details.
So even if you think the filibuster was handed down on Moses' stone tablets, you've got nothing to complain about. If you want to argue, "The reconciliation process should not be used to open Medicaid coverage to those under 150 percent of the poverty level instead of 133 percent of the poverty level!" then have at it, because that sort of thing is what we'll really be arguing about.
-- Paul Waldman
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