Can Democrats Reconcile on Reconciliation?

Blog Post
Thursday, October 07, 2021

This week on Facing the Future, we sorted through the various internal divisions among congressional Democrats that have slowed President Biden’s legislative agenda. We also looked at some non-traditional ideas that have been floated for getting around the debt limit, which was given a small boost of $480 billion in a deal struck at the end of the week. 

For insights on all this, we spoke with Tom Kahn, a Faculty Fellow at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington DC, and former Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee. 

Joining the conversation was Tori Gorman, policy director of The Concord Coalition. Later in the program, Steve Robinson, chief economist of The Concord Coalition, joined me and Tori for a roundup of the latest developments and where it all might come out. 

So far, Democrats don’t have enough votes in the House to pass a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan physical infrastructure bill without also passing a much larger human infrastructure bill.  And yet, they haven’t found consensus on what should be in that so-called “reconciliation bill,” how much it should cost, and how to pay for it.

Democrats “have a heck of a dilemma on their hands right now,” Kahn said, “because the size of the reconciliation bill is going to have to go down in order to meet the demands of Senators Sinema and Manchin, from $3.5 trillion to $2 trillion - about a 40 percent cut. That’s huge.”

The big problem for President Biden and congressional Democratic leaders, Khan said, is that they will have to tell members of Congress, “‘we’re going to have to take stuff away’ and all of us  who have been involved in politics know that it’s a lot easier to give than to take away. Frankly, it’s going to be an ugly process.”

Kahn advised that in explaining the reconciliation bill to the public, Democrats should stress the specific policies it contains rather than the overall numbers. “The policies, according to every poll I’ve seen, are enormously popular,” he said.

To reduce the official cost of the bill, Kahn predicted that scoring tactics, such as phase-ins and phase-outs, will be used. “Everybody knows,” he observed, “that once a program is in place and people are counting on it, the pressure will be on Congress to extend it.”

Later in the program, Robinson noted that in rough calculations he has made, the cost of implementing all the policy objectives Democrats have advocated in the reconciliation bill amounts to much more than their budget provides. “There is an old expression about the promise being bigger than the purse,” Robinson said. “Three-and-a-half trillion sounds like a lot of money but if you actually did all these things, fully for 10 years, the costs would be multiples of the numbers they're talking about.”

Gorman added, “Democrats need to design a bill that reflects the mandate that they have and that mandate is very, very narrow.” Her advice: “Pare down your legislation. Pick one or two priorities that you want as your signature issues, focus solely on those, and make them permanent.”

Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL, NHTalkRadio.com (N.H.), and it is also available via podcast. Join me and my guests as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.