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What is a Reconciliation Bill?

Toni Henthorn
Toni Henthorn

A reconciliation bill is a bill passed in the United States Senate or House of Representatives by a specific legislative process set forth in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. The purpose of reconciliation is to implement policy changes in the federal budget while bypassing the unlimited debate and amendment that is ordinarily allowed. Unlike a standard bill, a reconciliation bill may be passed with an affirmative vote of only 51 senators. The rules restrict debate to 20 hours, limit amendments, and prevent a filibuster by the minority. To trigger a reconciliation bill, Congress must pass a concurrent budget resolution with reconciliation instructions to one or more committees to come up with changes in existing law regarding spending, taxes, or debt limits that produce a desired improvement in the government's fiscal position.

The original intent of the reconciliation bill process was to combine the output of several committees into one bill and expedite its passage. Reconciliation bills must pertain to federal budgetary items, such as taxes, spending, and the debt limit. Once the committees have developed concrete proposals according to the reconciliation instructions, the senate budget committee packages the individual bills into one bill. The senate budget committee checks the calculations used to arrive at each bill, but it does not have the right to fundamentally change the component bills as long as the committee followed the reconciliation instruction. After the budget committee repackages the bills into one giant bill, it is "reported" to the senate floor for reconciliation.

The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.
The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.

The reconciliation process differs from standard operating procedure. A definitive date for a vote on final passage is fixed by the limited number of debate hours. Any proposed amendments to the bill must be truly relevant to the matter addressed in the bill. For example, an amendment mandating that all Americans shave their heads cannot be proposed for a bill that raises the debt ceiling. Amendments must pass a six-pronged test, called the Byrd rule, in order to be allowed during reconciliation.

Named after Senator Robert Byrd, the Byrd rule was adopted in 1985 for the purpose of defining provisions that are extraneous and, therefore, inappropriate for reconciliation. A provision is deemed extraneous if it does not result in changes in spending or revenues. The spending and revenue changes must be substantive and not simply incidental to other components of the provision. For example, a proposed amendment that increases taxes and also creates a new Fashion Police regulatory agency would be considered extraneous to a bill for lowering the deficit. If the provision produces a spending increase or a revenue decrease, it must fall within the scope of the committee reconciliation instruction and jurisdiction.

Amendments to a reconciliation bill cannot recommend changes in Social Security under the Byrd rule. Provisions that increase the deficit for fiscal years outside of those included in the reconciliation measure are also extraneous. If a senator asserts that a provision violates the Byrd rule, the senate parliamentarian rules on this point of order. When a provision violates any of the six aspects of the Byrd rule in the opinion of the parliamentarian, it is removed without a vote. The only way for the provision to remain in the bill is for 60 or more senators to vote to waive the Byrd rule.

The nuclear option, often mistaken for the reconciliation procedure, is a different tactic to respond to a filibuster or other delay strategy. A senator creates a point of order by citing the constitutional circumstances calling for an immediate vote on the proceeding before the senate. The presiding officer of the senate makes a parliamentary ruling on the senator's point of order. A filibuster supporter can challenge the ruling, after which a filibuster opponent tables the appeal, forcing a vote on the ruling. An affirmative vote of a simple majority on the ruling cuts off debate and moves the senate to a vote on the substantive issue under consideration.

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    • The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.
      The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.