The Education of a President: Reconciliation and Partisan Polarization

The media is reporting (see here and here)  that the Obama administration is considering bringing up several important pieces of legislation, including bills on health care reform and climate change, under special procedures designed to prevent Senate Republicans from using the filibuster to prevent passage of these bills. If Obama follows through on these reports, it will be an overt acknowledgment that he has given up on his pledge to restore bipartisanship to presidential-congressional relations.  To see why this proposal signals the end of any pretense of pursuing bipartisanship, one needs first to understand what he is proposing to do.

The special procedure he is contemplating using (or more precisely his Democratic allies in Congress are considering) is called “reconciliation”, and it was formally created as part of a package of reforms to the budgeting process adopted by Congress in 1974. The reforms created two new Budget committees (one in the House and one in the Senate), and a new step in the budget process designed to establish more top-down control over projected expenditures and revenues. The idea was to allow Congress to more clearly establish its budget priorities, and then bring spending and taxing in line with these goals. The new step involves the two new Budget Committees setting overall targets for how much money Congress intends to spend in a variety of areas (defense, health and human services, agriculture, etc.) and another set of targets on how Congress will raise money to pay for these programs.  These targets are incorporated into a budget resolution that must pass Congress before it can begin actual deliberations regarding individual spending and tax bills. That first budget resolution also contains instructions to the various tax and authorizing/appropriating subcommittees in Congress directing them to “reconcile” their specific appropriation and tax bills with these overall targets passed by Congress. (This description simplifies the original budget process a bit – there were actually supposed to be two budget reconciliation steps, but the second one is rarely used.)

Now, there are two crucial things to know about the reconciliation process. First, it is a budget-oriented procedure. By that I mean it is not designed to be used when debating non-budgetary legislation. So, why is Obama reportedly considering utilizing this legislative procedure in an unorthodox manner, to push through legislation, such as health care reform or climate policy, that is not, strictly speaking, part of the budgeting process?  Because under congressional rules reconciliation bills cannot be filibustered. That is, rather than the supramajority requirement of 60 votes needed to pass most bills in the Senate (60 votes are required to end a filibuster), under budget reconciliation procedures, legislation only requires a simple majority – 51 votes – to pass the Senate. Put another way, any bill taken up by the Democrats under reconciliation can be passed in the Senate without a single Republican vote, since Democrats control 58 Senate seats. (In the House, the Democrats already control a working majority, which is why they easily passed an economic stimulus bill without a single Republican vote in support.)

The decision – if Obama agrees to it – to use reconciliation to pass non-budgetary items will be highly controversial for at least two reasons.  To begin, under reconciliation procedures, there are strict limits on debate.  Critics – including some Democrats in Congress – argue that significant legislation such as health care reform or cap-and-trade emissions legislation needs to be thoroughly debated in Congress, and thus ought not to be brought up under more restrictive conditions.  More generally, they argue that using reconciliation for a non-budgetary purpose is a clear violation of Senate norms, and that it is not suitable for debating complex legislation.  Second, the use of reconciliation is a blatant signal that Obama is willing to ignore Republicans when drafting significant legislation.  Given these factors, why would Obama consider using the procedure?  In large part because he is under pressure from the Left Wing of his own party to do so. Democrats in the House were none too happy with the concessions Obama made to moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Senate in order to enact his economic stimulus package, and they do not want to see this repeated in debate over signature elements of the Democratic legislative agenda.

For Republicans, of course, Obama’s threat to use reconciliation to pass his major bills is simply more evidence that Obama’s repeated campaign pledges to put an “end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics” was so much empty rhetoric.  Democrats, in response, argue that Obama has repeatedly reached a hand across the partisan divide, only to see the gesture rebuffed by Republicans, most recently during the debate over the economic stimulus bill.

Both perspectives, I argue, overlook the fundamental reason why we are unlikely to see any end to the polarization experienced during the Bush presidency, Obama’s well-meaning pledges to the contrary notwithstanding.  Partisan polarization had almost nothing to do with Bush, and everything to do with the composition of Congress.  Consider the following chart, which uses Democrats’ and Republicans’ voting records in the 110th (2007-09) Congress to place them along a single ideological dimension. (The data was gathered by Middlebury undergrad Avery White, based on DW-Nominate scores that I have discussed previously in this blog).  Note the complete lack of any overlap in the two parties, signified by the empty space in the middle of the ideological spectrum.

What does this mean if you are Obama?  Simply put, there is no preexisting foundation on which to build a bipartisan coalition. If anything, the current Congress is even more polarized than the previous one, as we saw in debate regarding the economic stimulus bill.   This does not mean that Obama cannot attract Republican votes – he can. But to do so he will need to adopt Republican policies – at a likely cost of a drop in support from the left wing of the Democratic Party.  When given the chance to meet the Republicans halfway during the debate over the stimulus bill, Obama chose not to – and for good reason. Had he moved any more toward the Republican direction, he faced a revolt from the Pelosi Democrats in the House.

This is why I have argued from the start of Obama’s presidency that his claim to be a “post-partisan” president was likely to fall on deaf ears. In fact, I expected his presidency to be the mirror image of Bush’s, in which most of his major legislative initiatives will pass with little or no Republican support.   This is particularly true for issues that highlight the major ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans – the extent to which the government is responsible for maintaining economic security.  To the degree that his initiatives on health care, or Medicare reform, or energy, map onto this ideological divide, it will be very difficult for Obama to develop a bipartisan coalition.

Let’s be clear here: I think Obama was sincere in his belief that once elected, he could change the culture of polarization that has dominated congressional debate for the last decade or more.  But it is easier to promise change than to enact it.  He has discovered what Bush, and Clinton before him, also discovered: that there is an inherent tension between passing bills in bipartisan fashion and passing bills that appeal to your party’s core beliefs. And this is why he is now considering bringing some major bills up under reconciliation – an inherently polarizing process.  Note: this is NOT the case of Obama reaching out to the Republicans first only to see his efforts rebuffed.  This is the President saying to Republicans that “I don’t need your input in the legislative process.”  It is the antithesis of bipartisanship.  It is a purely partisan strategy that will only exacerbate partisan tension. And yet, evidently, Obama sees this as the price that one must pay to legislate under current conditions – exactly the calculation that Bush made before him.

Now, it may be that he will continue to reach out, rhetorically, to the Republicans. As Obama said after the stimulus bill debate, “All those (efforts) were not designed simply to get some short-term votes. They were designed to try to build up some trust over time. And I think that as I continue to make these overtures, over time hopefully that will be reciprocated.” Some of you, like Bob Johnson, applaud Obama for making these rhetorical overtures in part because you believe, as Obama predicts, that over time such overtures may dampen some of the overt partisanship characterizing presidential-congressional relations to date.  But the worry is that if the results continually belie the rhetoric, Obama’s credibility as leader may suffer.

It is easy to forget that Bush too took office promising to be a “uniter, not a divider.”  As he said in his 2001 inaugural address: “Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos. And this commitment, if we keep it, is a way to shared accomplishment.”  And yet he left office eight years later viewed as a strongly polarizing figure.

The lesson, I hope, is clear, and it should be a reminder why I continually harp on a recurring theme: presidents must play the political cards they are dealt, and that hand is never as strong as they (or their supporters) envision it to be while on the campaign trail.  For Obama, as for Bush, that hand is a highly polarized Congress that precludes the possibility of governing in bipartisan fashion on most issues.  Readers of this blog will not be surprised to know that already Obama’s approval ratings have dropped almost 10% from his initial post-inaugural Gallup poll high of 68% (I’ll devote a separate post to a discussion of approval ratings more generally.)  As I noted in an earlier blog, this decline was almost inevitable, and thus easily predicted, given that he won election with only 53% of the popular vote.  Significantly, most of that drop is due to erosion of support among Republicans in the electorate.

A post-partisan president? Hardly. Nor should we have expected otherwise.


  1. Matt — to someone like myself who was brought up on the voting patterns of Congress in the 50s through early 80s, the table you sent with your latest blog is mind blowing. It exceeds the fondest dreams of the More Responsible Political Party advocates of that time. Perhaps it is an example of the dangers of wishing for something: you sometimes get it! In the meantime, the American people (I believe — do you have any data on this?) continue to prefer a bipartisan politics in
    Washington. That seems to be Obama’s dilemma.
    I find the current use of the filibuster (and other bill-stopping procedures) a perversion of the norm of full debate in the Senate, so perhaps the reconciliation process you describe could be a place for full but not unlimited debate if the rules provide, or could be amended to provide, a reasonable amount of time to explore proposals brought to the Senate floor. Could you comment on that?
    Glad you are back to blogging.

  2. Bipartisanship can only occur on an issue-specific basis. The majority of the members of Congress in each of the parties maintains such different views of the world that agreeing on plans of action on a regular basis is nearly impossible.

    For example, they can all agree that unemployment is a big problem, but the Republican members’ plans of action will vary from doing nothing (“the markets will work it out”) to maybe some assistance (tax breaks) to employers to hire more. The Democratic members views/plans will start on the other side of the spectrum (e.g., restrictions on layoffs like a one year notice to the employees, or tax penalties to companies that lay off workers or move operations and jobs overseas) and then also move to the “middle” (so might also include tax breaks to employers who hire more). But the members of both parties that find common ground in the middle are simultaneously being pulled to that party’s end of the spectrum by the members out there. Bipartisanship succeeds on the issue only if the middle is large enough to form a majority in both houses, strong enough to withstand the pressures to move members/votes to the two ends of the spectrum, and also consistent with the then President.

    The other hindrance to bipartisanship is that each party is continually positioning itself politically for the next election (always no more than 22 months away). This unfortunately forces the party to contrast its position with the opposition’s, i.e., to disagree with it by proposing different solutions — an unproductive but hard to avoid by-product of the American electoral and political systems.


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