Bernie Sanders shows why reconciliation needs to be reformed

Perhaps somebody missed a memo, but King Joseph of West Virginia previously said that he didn’t want to participate in ramming through a bunch of partisan bills with zero bipartisan support via reconciliation. That doesn’t appear to have slowed down Bernie Sanders, however. He is reviving three of his previous bills ostensibly designed to lower the cost of prescription drugs and since they apparently still lack any significant GOP backing, he’s already preparing to use the reconciliation process to get them passed. Assuming that works (a very big assumption) he has more bills in mind that he wants to use this particular scheme on to thwart the filibuster without killing it entirely. (CNN)

On Tuesday, Sanders will introduce the three bills ahead of a hearing of his Budget Committee on the topic. One bill is designed to index the price of popular drugs according the global market. A second will give Medicare the opportunity to pay for drugs through a competitive bidding process, and the third would allow Americans to buy drugs at cheaper prices from foreign sellers…

From his perch as Budget Committee chairman, Sanders wields a powerful weapon. He is able to push through legislation through the reconciliation process, which allows bills, which directly impact the federal budget, to pass the Senate with a simple majority, as opposed to standard pieces of legislation that must overcome a 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster to move forward.

Sanders, with the support of President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, utilized reconciliation to pass the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package. Sanders believes prescription drug reform should be a part of the next reconciliation package.

Bernie Sanders isn’t entirely crazy here. In Trojan horse fashion, he’s preparing a “package” deal that leads with a promise of cheaper prescription drugs. If you tell people you’re going to do that, who’s going to be opposed? While it’s not exactly “free stuff” it falls into the same populist category. But Sanders is already admitting that the “package” could contain any number of other things totally unrelated to drug prices, including “infrastructure improvements, climate change, and job creation.”

Frankly, I’m less concerned with the contents of these bills than the tactics on display. I myself think that prescription drug costs are frequently just crazy and would love to see them be lower. But it depends how you accomplish that and what the cost on the back end will be. Ron Wyden and Chuck Grassley supposedly have their own, bipartisan prescription drug pricing bill in the works that could be far more reasonable (and likely draw the needed level of GOP support to get over 60 votes), but Sanders won’t have anything to do with that. It’s his way or the highway.

Getting back to the main point here, what Bernie Sanders and his Democratic cohort are planning is essentially a gross abuse of the reconciliation process. Those rules were never put in place to accomplish the things we’re seeing here. Reconciliation was supposed to be used for major budget packages, spending bills, and alterations to the national debt ceiling. Because those omnibus bills have so many moving parts, it can be almost impossible to pass identical versions in both the House and Senate. When the two sides can’t agree on every penny for each item, but broadly agree that the bill has to be passed, this process can be used to do some horse-trading and hammer out the differences.

That’s not what’s going to happen here. Sanders will work something into the bill that costs money so it technically qualifies as “appropriations” and then have someone in the House bring up a nearly, but not quite identical bill, likely with a slightly different amount of spending, making no effort to bring the same bill to a vote in each chamber. That’s how they get to reconciliation without needing any bipartisan support.

As I said, that is not a real reconciliation process. It’s a shortcut around the filibuster and it shouldn’t be allowed. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans shot themselves in the foot in terms of making this argument because they’ve done the same thing a couple of times in the past. (They used this trick when rolling back the insurance mandate in Obamacare.) But that doesn’t make this exercise any better. If these are the new marching orders in the Senate, the rules should be changed to prevent this sort of abuse in the future..