by Jonathan Bernstein

You'll recall that at the health care summit, John McCain took a shot at California over water rights.  Now, I happen to be a native of Arizona, so I can appreciate that sentiment.  But in politics these days, what California is mostly known for is a massively dysfunctional budget process.  While most legislation in California needs only majorities in their legislature and the okay of the governor, budget bills need a supermajority.  The result is, more often than not, a train wreck.  John McCain apparently has been studying California thinks...gimme some of that.

Congress, for better or worse, has the opposite approach.  While most things are subject to supermajority requirements in the Senate, budgeting generally is exempt from that requirement.  A key part of that is the formerly obscure bill called "reconciliation,"  which as I guess all attentive readers know by now cannot be filibustered.  A little with the wonky -- do you know what reconciliation is supposed to reconcile?  It's not, as you might have thought, revenues and expenditures.  Reconciliation is actually supposed to reconcile Congress's original plans for the year, as expressed in the Congressionally-passed budget resolution, with whatever Congress has actually done during the year.  The idea was to help Congress live up to its own promises to itself.  The people who came up with the budget reforms of the mid-1970s knew how hard it was to pass laws, and were concerned that this difficulty made it harder for Congress to maintain control of the budget, and so they invented a new, protected type of legislation to make it a little easier. 

That wasn't needed for appropriations bills, which must pass every year or else the government will not be able to function.  It's need for changes in entitlement spending, and it's needed for changes in revenues. 

Back to McCain: he's now introduced a bill to shield Medicare from reconciliation, saying that "entitlements should not be part of a reconciliation process."  That's nonsensical, to tell the truth: entitlements are a main reason that the reconciliation process was invented.  It's true that Social Security was exempted from reconciliation in 1985, but adding Medicare would be a major step towards turning the budget process back into a supermajority procedure. As Ezra Klein says, "The issue here isn't mere hypocrisy. It's dangerous shortsightedness."   That's right; it would be a significant step on the road to turning Congress into the California state legislature.  The next step would surely be removing tax increases from reconciliation, leaving Congress even more handcuffed when it came to deficit reduction.  

There's a reasonable argument that Congress should need a supermajority to pass ordinary bills.  But that argument is weakest when it comes to things that Congress absolutely must pass, and budgeting is at the core of must-pass legislation.  You would think that John McCain would know that, but then again he's never really been one to understand the substance of policy and procedure.  But it's very simple: supermajority requirements + budgeting = California. 

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.