The American people are angry – and for good reason. About 20 percent of our workforce is unemployed or under-employed, health insurance premiums are soaring while more and more people lose their coverage, we are looking at record-breaking deficits, global warming threatens the planet, young people can’t afford a college education and we are fighting two wars.
In the midst of all of this, facing the greatest set of crises since the Great Depression, the Republican Party has become the “Party of No.” Senate Republicans have engaged in a record number of filibusters and other obstructionist tactics. More than 280 bills passed by the House have not yet been considered in the Senate. Day after day they slow down legislation and use the arcane rules of the Senate to make sure that nothing is accomplished. One senator called for the complete reading of a 700-page amendment. Another put a “hold” on all of President Obama’s nominees. Another recently delayed hundreds of thousands of American workers from receiving extended unemployment and health insurance benefits. On and on it goes!
Meanwhile, people who voted for Obama and the Democrats are wondering why the majority party is always on the defensive and why, with large majorities in the House and Senate, they still can’t pass major legislation to address the pressing needs of the middle class and working families. I do a national radio show every week and I continuously hear such words as “disappointed,” “disgusted,” “frustrated.” People are hurting; they want action from Congress and they want it now.
The good news is that, in order to get this country moving again, all the Democrats have to do is to use the same Senate procedure that Republicans employed – time and time again – in the past. The “reconciliation process” requires 51 votes to pass legislation in the Senate, not 60. I find the hypocrisy extraordinary that when the president or Democrats now talk about using reconciliation, Republicans begin whining and howling about how unfair and undemocratic that process is. That’s strange! They have used that very same approach time after time when it suited their purposes.
Remember Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” the 2,400-page bible of the Republican Revolution of the 1990s, which slashed Medicare and Medicaid, cut education, raised taxes on working families, weakened environmental standards and gave huge tax breaks to the rich? Guess what? Before President Clinton vetoed that terrible bill it passed by reconciliation. In fact, of the 22 times that reconciliation has been used since 1980, Republicans have used it 16 times – often to provide tax breaks to the wealthy and slash health care for the elderly and poor.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), among many other Republicans, is now a critic of reconciliation. But back in 2005, when the Republicans used it, he sang a different tune saying, “All this rule of the Senate does is allow a majority of the Senate to take a position and pass a piece of legislation; support that position. Is there something wrong with majority rules? I don't think so." Senator Gregg was right then. He’s wrong now.
Let’s take a brief walk down memory lane and review how reconciliation has been used in the past.
In 1985, Congress provided health insurance for the unemployed, a backstop insurance policy commonly known as COBRA. Do you know what COBRA stands for? It’s the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.
In 1996, Republicans used reconciliation to pass major legislation that ended six decades of welfare policy.
In 2001, Republicans used reconciliation to pass President Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax cut that mainly benefitted the wealthy.
In 2003, Republicans increased the deficit by $350 billion by providing generous tax breaks for the wealthy and large businesses. Vice President Dick Cheney cast the tie breaking 51st vote to send this bill to the president.
In 2005, Republicans passed a 360-page reconciliation bill without a single Democratic vote that provided deep cuts to Medicaid, and raised premiums on Medicare beneficiaries. Once again, Cheney cast the tie-breaking vote.
Republicans believed in reconciliation when George W. Bush was president and wanted to push an agenda that benefited the wealthy and large corporations. Now, however, they vigorously oppose reconciliation because some of us want to reform a disintegrating health care system, make college more affordable for working families and create millions of good jobs by ending our $350 billion a year dependency on foreign oil and moving to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.
The American people have had enough of this double standard. The Democrats were elected to govern and to address the horrendous problems this country faces. It is time for the Democrats to use the same reconciliation rules Republicans used over and over again. The time to act is now!