In new, obscure Senate rules news that has an outsized effect on our lives: The Senate parliamentarian has ruled that Democrats can use budget reconciliation to pass more legislation this year. It’s the kind of inside baseball that the average citizen shouldn’t have to worry about. But in the U.S. of 2021, with the Senate evenly split, the filibuster still in effect, and bipartisanship on significant legislation a near-impossibility, it’s a decision that could actually have a huge effect on American families.
The parliamentarian’s decision essentially allows Democrats to reopen the budget plan they passed in February and add new policies that meet the requirements of the budget reconciliation process.
A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that the decision “confirms the Leader’s interpretation of the Budget Act and allows Democrats additional tools to improve the lives of Americans if Republican obstruction continues.” Here’s what those tools are, what it means for families, and the federal policies that could pass that would help families because of the new ruling.
What is budget reconciliation?
Budget reconciliation is a special Senatorial process that allows the body to pass legislation with a simple majority—51 votes—instead of the 60 required to break a filibuster. Reconciliation is limited to certain kinds of budget and spending bills, so it can’t be used for things like voting rights legislation.
Democrats used reconciliation to pass the American Rescue Plan, Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, which extended federal unemployment benefits, created a new round of economic stimulus payments, gave billions to schools, states, and local governments, funded vaccine sites and testing programs, and contained a huge expansion of the child tax credit, among other major moves. That should give you a pretty good idea of what can be accomplished with reconciliation.
With Democrats unable to convince their entire caucus to go ahead and abolish the filibuster and the prospect of attracting ten Republicans to vote with them a pipe dream, reconciliation is their best path forward for actually passing laws. The parliamentarian just gave them another bite at the apple, the chance to use budget reconciliation a third time this year.
What policies can lawmakers pass to help American families now?
Effectively, budget reconciliation means that Democratic leadership doesn’t need any Republican votes to pass a bill. They’ll likely still engage in negotiations with the GOP, but the important conversations will be within the Democratic caucus, which now has a real chance to pass permanent, potentially transformative policies for working families.
At the top of the list should be Biden’s recently unveiled infrastructure plan, a $2 trillion package with funding for roads and bridges, utilities and broadband, manufacturing, and the non-childcare aspects of the care economy. He was planning on introducing a second infrastructure bill to fill in gaps like childcare, paid family leave, and making the child tax credit expansion permanent, but there were broad concerns before the new budget reconciliation ruling that the bill would not have been able to garner any Republican support and that political will would leave those items a pipe dream.
Now, it’s possible that, given this new development, the Democrats combine all of these changes, part of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, into one bill, making it a massive package that addresses more needs than previously expected.
For parents looking for relief like the childcare funding and subsidies Biden promised during the presidential campaign, the parliamentarian’s decision is good news. Biden wants to fund his bill with tax increases on businesses and the wealthy, two non-starters in the modern GOP. With reconciliation, the debate will be over how much to raise these taxes, not whether to raise them at all.
What can’t Democrats use budget reconciliation to pass?
The parliamentarian ruled back in February that a minimum wage increase could not be included in a budget reconciliation bill, so it’s unlikely that the Democrats try to pass that policy with this process this time around. The provisions of Biden’s plan protecting workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively also seem likely to be jettisoned, as they are not germane to the budget. Other priorities like the aforementioned voting rights bill are similarly ineligible for inclusion in any measures passed with budget reconciliation.
So while the parliamentarian’s ruling is certainly good news for those who want Democrats to aggressively wield their power, it’s not enough to make every Democratic priority a reality. Abolishing the filibuster, an idea that’s growing more and more popular in the Democratic caucus, is still the only way to get non-budgetary but still vital reforms like the Voting Rights Act through a 50-50 Senate.
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