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Congress and the Balance of Power

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Congress and the Balance of Power

10 Blocks podcast February 10, 2021
Politics and law

Chris Pope joins Brian Anderson to discuss the balance of power on Capitol Hill, some major legislation that the new Congress is considering—such as a $15 minimum wage or a “Green New Deal”—and why Senate Democrats are unlikely to abolish the filibuster.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Chris Pope. He's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where his work primarily focuses on healthcare policy, hospitals, entitlement, and health insurance markets. Chris has also been a regular writer for City Journal for a few years now, tackling all those topics and more, including the subject of today's discussion, Congress.

Chris, thanks very much for joining us.

Chris Pope: Thanks for inviting me, Brian.

Brian Anderson: Since the election outcome was clarified, the balance of power in the Senate now stands at 50/50, but with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast the tie-breaking vote, the Democrats basically have narrow control of both the Senate and the House.

One of the issues we're going to be hearing a lot more about as the Biden Administration picks up momentum this year is going to be the Senate's filibuster. Liberals, as you've noted, are increasingly keen to abolish the 60 vote threshold to overcome a Republican filibuster, and they've been encouraged in this, seemingly, by President Biden and his predecessor President Obama.

When you wrote about this issue for us, I think it was back in October, you said the abolishing of the filibuster would be unlikely. Why do you think that's true? And, have you seen anything that would change your mind, in recent developments?

Chris Pope: Yeah. I think back in October when I made that prediction, I was actually, I think like most people, assuming the Democrats were going to have a more sizable majority, even, than they currently do. I think most people back then were assuming they would get 53 or so seats, and it seems like they're only going to get 50 seats. Sorry, we know that they only have 50 seats, with the Vice President as a tie-breaking vote. So what seemed very unlikely in October is now, we know, an impossibility that they're going to abolish the filibuster.

Joe Manchin has even come out and said he's opposed to abolishing the filibuster. But, he's not the only one. Lots of other Democrats, you can be sure, in the Senate feel similarly, although they're less eager to say so. They're probably more dependent on liberal primary voters, and on liberals to secure their election. Joe Manchin, obviously coming from West Virginia, has nothing worry about from that direction. If anything, the fact that he's standing aside from liberals and irritating them is probably of some political benefit to him back home.

Brian Anderson: Now, do we expect to see the use of the reconciliation process in Congress a lot, going forward? And, maybe you could explain for our listeners exactly what that involves.

Chris Pope: Yeah. The reconciliation process is probably best thought of as a loophole that gets Senate majority around the filibuster. The filibuster rule, just to summarize for anyone who might not be highly familiar, is basically the fact that any Senator can hold up debate and can prevent action in the Senate. Unless there is a cloture vote, which is essentially 60 Senators voting to move things along, move a bill on to final passage, or basically before someone has stopped talking. That basically gives 40 out of 100 Senators the ability to block action, it gives the minority the ability to block action.

While the reconciliation process is actually exempt from that rule. There are debate limits in the reconciliation process, you can't just talk forever. There is an hour's limit for any bill that's subject to reconciliation, so the filibuster doesn't work under the reconciliation process. Which means that a simple majority in the Senate can rule, you only need 51 votes to carry something on reconciliation.

Now, the catch is that you can only do certain things through reconciliation. In short, it's essentially fiscal and budgetary matters than can be done through reconciliation. And, this is defined fairly narrowly, with a whole array of precedents that are basically designed to constrain the use of the reconciliation process.

So if you think of it, basically, as a process that allows Congress to increase spending, or reduce spending on any existing matter of law, but can't actually really change the technical regulations associated with the whole Federal code. You can do a lot if you phrase something as increasing spending or reducing spending, but the moment that you want to tweak the regulation, then you run into the filibuster again. It's potentially a useful tool, but it's also a constrained tool.

Brian Anderson: I see. A couple of items on the Biden agenda, I'd love to get your views on whether you think we're going to see these or not.

One would be the $15 minimum wage, Federal minimum wage, which Biden campaigned on. And also, and more ambitiously, the Green New Deal. How much of that do you expect to see become law in the months ahead?

Chris Pope: Certainly on the minimum wage, that is not something that's going to be possible through reconciliation. That's essentially a regulation. Reconciliation procedures, even though some people have argued well, the minimum wage has impacts on the Federal budget and therefore it should be allowed through reconciliation, the reconciliation provisions basically say things that have incidental impacts on the Federal budget can't be done through reconciliation. That clearly rules out the minimum wage, and my understanding is that there's actually some direct precedent in this respect.

Members of Congress, they can change reconciliation rules through a simple majority, but again, Joe Manchin said that he's not going to do this. I think we can assume that the minimum wage would not pass through reconciliation, although there is a chance that it could by bipartisan agreement. Towards the end of the Bush Administration, the minimum wage was increased through bipartisan legislation. And it is possible that, if you did it as a bipartisan package, you could pick up enough Republican votes to get to 60 votes, although that at this point might still be unlikely, and it seems like Democrats aren't that hopeful of getting there.

Certainly, $15 minimum wage isn't going to happen. Joe Manchin himself has said that he'd only support an $11 minimum wage, but doesn't support breaking the filibuster to get there. Unless there's a sudden group of Republicans who are willing to increase minimum wage, I think we can be sure that that's unlikely to happen.

The Green New Deal is potentially a long laundry list of regulatory and spending items, to the extent that it's a nebulous vision. It's possible to imagine some spending programs that could be allowed through reconciliation as some spending items that have an environmental impact, that advance some environmental causes. You can imagine subsidies for green energy, taxes on fossil fuels, those kinds of things could potentially be done through reconciliation. But, probably falls a long way short of what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was looking for and had in mind when she pledged that.

And then again, there are just ordinary political constraints that get in the way. I think it's fair to assume that many members of Congress, imagine you're a moderate Democrat member of Congress and you oppose a liberal provision, well it's a lot easier to say, "You know, I would love to be able to do this but the filibuster is stopping me," than arguing with your base as to why you think it's a good idea. So a lot of quiet moderate Democratic opposition to liberal interest groups tends to hide behind the filibuster, and tends to quite enjoy the filibuster as a way of saving it from having to make lots of unpleasant and awkward arguments against their inside. It might be disillusioning.

Brian Anderson: I mentioned at the outset, you write a lot on healthcare issues entitlement. It's obviously a huge part of what the Federal government does today. What have you seen thus far out of the Biden Administration on this front? And again, what might we expect going forward, with such a sharply divided Congress?

Chris Pope: Well Joe Biden, he was Obama's Vice President, has very much in terms of healthcare policy has aligned himself with Obamacare, wanting not to reject it, with Medicare for all as some of his primary campaign opponents. But, he's wanted to expand on it, build on it. And to be specific, he campaigned on expanding subsidies for Obamacare, for people to buy plans from the Obamacare Exchange.

And actually, just yesterday Representative Neil, who is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, they're the [inaudible 00:10:20] of jurisdiction, has proposed essentially what Biden has called for, in that respect. Which is slightly expanding the subsidies that individuals are entitled to, if they buy Obamacare plans from the individual market. That, I think, is likely to have political support. That, I think, will be quite likely to go through, even with just 50 votes. Obviously, Democrats are a heartbeat away from losing their Senate majority so anything can happen. But assuming that things stay as they are in the Senate, that they will have the votes to slightly expand subsidies for Obamacare, as Biden called for in his campaign and is proposing currently to do.

Brian Anderson: Now, another policy idea that has been making the news lately actually comes from Mitt Romney, who has proposed a child allowance plan. I'm wondering what your take is on that. In some ways, the proposal is similar to certain ideas that the Biden Administration seems open to, so perhaps it's an opportunity for bipartisanship. But, what's your take on it? Do you think it's a good idea? And, do you think it would get sufficient Republican support to become law?

Chris Pope: Representative Neil's bill that he released yesterday as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee includes a substantial child tax credit proposal. In a sense, that's more important than the Romney proposal, because obviously Representative Neil's is the chairman of the most powerful committee in the House of Representatives, whereas Mitt Romney's a backbench member of the Senate minority party, as it were. So Neil's proposal matters more than Romney's.

They both involve a substantial child tax credit of about $3000. The big difference between them is essentially the fact that Mitt Romney's one is paid for, and Chairman Neil's one is not. That, I think, if you're somewhat conservatively minded, that's a big and important difference. The notion, if you look at Romney's proposal, it very much involves consolidating a lot of existing programs, getting rid of work disincentives, trying to make sure that existing funding streams that already go to families are more rationally allocated. And this is budget neutral, and really tries to be careful to ensure that it's budget neutral.

The Romney proposal, I think, has been sold to folks on the center and the right of center as really a cleaning up of existing law, that is almost a common sense good government item. Chairman Neil's proposal, even though it superficially sounds similar, is really just a new entitlement layered on top of existing entitlements, with all the distortions, and work disincentives that are inherent in existing entitlements, and adds to them.

I think it might not be an accident that these two proposals have come out fairly close together. What Democrats and the Administration are surely hoping is that some of the good feeling associated with the Romney proposal might rub off on their own proposal that's been advanced through the House Ways and Means Committee. The chances are good. Again, spending more money is something that unites Democrats, it's not a complicated issue like something to do with environmental regulation where you might stop [inaudible 00:14:34] members from Appalachia. There's no divisive social issues associated with it. Most Democrats broadly support spending more money on low-income families, so you can imagine this is going to keep the caucus united.

But again, there is this issue that the majority is razor thin in the Senate, and pretty thin in the House as well. So they don't have a huge amount of votes to spare. If it is just a new entitlement layered on top of every other entitlement, I think it's go very little chance of picking up any Republican votes. But on the other hand, even Romney's proposal which is budget neutral and paid for, that didn't seem to command a huge amount of enthusiasm from other Republican members of Congress. Senator Rubio, Senator Lee, who have been supportive of child tax credits, there were essentially tax cuts in the past, came out and said that they weren't enthusiastic and opposed the idea of a new entitlement, even one that was paid for. It could be very close, just because the Senate majority and the House majority are very, very small right now. These are very, very narrow Congressional majorities, and probably the narrowest majorities Democrats have had in Congress for many decades.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Chris. Don't forget to check out Chris Pope's work on the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org, the link to his author page and his recent work in the podcast description. You can follow Chris on Twitter at @cpopehc. That's @cpopehc. You can also follow City Journal on Twitter at @cityjournal, and Instagram at @cityjournal_mi. As always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please leave us nice ratings on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and thanks very much again, Chris, for joining us.

Chris Pope: Thank you.

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Photo by Douglas Rissing/iStock

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