The budget reconciliation process, Ezra Klein points out, "has been the key to getting anything done for at least 20 years." He's right, of course (and how I miss those long afternoons talking to Ezra about things like budget reconciliation!).
But he's not quite right to call it "a majority-rules process tucked inside the super-majority Senate." He cites political scientist Joshua Tucker, who examined the Congressional Research Service report on reconciliation and deduced that it was mostly used by Republicans: "By my admittedly simple classification scheme," Tucker concludes, "this would suggest that 14 of the 19 times reconciliation was used between FY1981 - FY2005, it was used to advance Republican interests."
The thing is, the budget reconciliation process takes a completely different form if there is any kind of divided control of government. If the House, Senate, and presidency are all controlled by the same party -- as is the case now, and was the case for six and a half of the previous 30 years -- then reconciliation can be an instrument of pure majority power, as it was in the 2001 tax cuts or the two reconciliation bills pushed through by the GOP in 2005.
But if the other party controls either house of Congress or the presidency, as has been the case for the other 25 and a half years of the last three decades, then budget reconciliation is something else entirely. Usually, it's been a way of quickly ratifying complex bipartisan agreements that are negotiated externally, such as the 1990 or the 1997 budget deals. If the House and Senate are both under the control of one party, and the presidency under the other, as in 1995-2000, they can also use reconciliation to try to force the president's hand, without first dealing with members of the president's party, as in welfare reform in 1996. But in these cases, it's not used to advance the interests of one party, as it requires both.
It's a subtle distinction, but reconciliation is not a majoritarian process by nature -- it only works that way when all the other stars line up exactly.
-- Mark Schmitt