Great Grand-Daddy of Reconciliation

February 26, 2010 10:27 a.m.

Is Ronald Reagan the Great Grand-Daddy of Reconciliation?

That was TPM Reader and former congressional staffer BP says …

As a Senate Committee staffer in the early 1980’s, I participated in the first major use of reconciliation, and I would like to recount my experience. I understand that CRS has documented significant instances of reconciliation, but I would like to provide some personal flavor.

First, reconciliation was a little noticed provision of the Congressional Budget Control and Impoundment Act of 1974, a significant attempt by Congress to establish a disciplined process for getting a handle on the burgeoning federal budget in the waning years of the guns and butter policy of the Johnson Administration, which carried out both the Great Society and the Viet Nam War simultaneously. I believe reconciliation was first used in 1978 to “reconcile” budgetary problems in the National School Lunch Program.

Second, Ronald Reagan came to D.C. in 1981 with a least four stated, major goals: balance the budget, cut taxes, increase the defense budget and hold Social Security constant. His OMB director, David Stockman, who was a former John B. Anderson staffer as was I, hit upon reconciliation as a vehicle to drive not only budgetary changes but major, major policy changes as well. Stockman circulated what we called his little black book, which contained all sorts of suggested changes to federal programs. Stockman purposely want to move quickly in order to fracture what he called the “Iron Triangle”, namely the troika of Members of Congress who created specific programs, bureaucrats who ran administered those programs and citizens who benefited from those programs, from binding together to resist change.

Third, the process was begun in the House and was led by another of the conservative icon, Phil Gramm, who was one of the major horseman of the reconciliation apocalypse. In fact, the House bill was referred to as Gramm-Latta, the other half being former Congressman Del Latta of Ohio. The Reagan/Stockman/Gramm/Latta proposal made enormous changes in not only tax policy but also to appropriations and authorization language for underlying federal program statutes. The budget alternative also was moved so precipitously through the House that the name of CBO staffer Rita Seymour was actually printed, along with her phone number, in the massive, printed amendment that came to the House floor. When I made speeches on this legislation, I used to sarcastically call it “trying to undo twenty years of laws in twenty minutes.”

Fourth, when it got to the Senate, where I worked as a professional staff member on the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts and the Humanities, chaired by the Vermont U.S. Senator Bob Stafford, the process got considerably slower. One reason: the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, chaired by Orrin Hatch, was closely divided with nine Republicans and 7 Democrats. A good part of the reconciliation bill was devoted to enacting a Reagan favorite, block grants. I believe at least four or five of these had to go through Labor and Human Resources so that the underlying statutory language could be changed by the authorizing committee. Stafford and fellow GOP committee member Lowell Weicker refused to agree to the changes the White House wanted. By not joining the other seven Republicans on the committee, they created a logjam that kept the flood of Reagonomics from rushing over the Senate. Eventually, Stafford and Weicker extracted significant compromises from the White House, and the Omnibus Budget and Reconciliation Act of 1981 became law.

People should disabuse themselves of the notion that major changes were not made. In our little subcommittee alone, we ended up amending the Higher Education Act, the student loan program, and the fundamental Elementary and Secondary Education Act, all foundational elements of the Great Society. Had it not been for Stafford and Weicker, the changes would have been even worse. And, even now, we are living with the results of some of the revisions we made in 1981, many chosen purely to meet the budget authority and budget obligation targets handed down by the Senate Budget Committee.

I know that Republicans have canonized Saint Ronnie and want him up on Mount Rushmore, but please remind his latter-day acolytes that Reagan is the great grand-daddy of reconciliation, and had it not been for that now-dead breed of moderate Republicans including Bob Stafford and Lowell Weicker, the Reagan Revolution would have been even more wrenching to our national fabric. Today, the consequences of the 1981 OBRA continue to spawn damaging aftershocks, and congressional Republicans who deny this fact are either choosing to ignore it or are lying. I tend to think they are doing the latter.

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