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This Ruling Might Ultimately Torpedo Democrats’ Dangerous Legislative Agenda

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An advisory ruling from an obscure Washington official last week might complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to push trillions of dollars in new taxes and spending.

Multiple news stories confirmed the opinion from the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, which was not released publicly. In sum, it presents Democrats a potentially difficult decision later this year: they will either have to jettison elements of the Biden agenda, or cram their entire legislative package into one bill—turning it into a “Christmas tree” that could collapse under its own weight.

What Did the Ruling Advise?

MacDonough’s opinion detailed the circumstances under which the Senate can revise budget reconciliation instructions. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D.-N.Y., bragged in April that an earlier opinion from MacDonough paved the way for the Senate to pass multiple reconciliation bills in one year. But details of that April guidance remained scarce — and the recent guidance suggests Schumer overstated its effects.

MacDonough’s recent ruling confirmed Section 304 of the Congressional Budget Act does allow lawmakers to revise the budget, and therefore budget reconciliation instructions. But the guidance comes with two critical caveats.

First, any changes to a budget, or budget reconciliation, would have to go through the entire legislative process, making the changes time-consuming and cumbersome. Second, MacDonough indicated lawmakers could only revise a budget in extraordinary economic circumstances, not simply because they want more opportunities to use budget reconciliation. She cited legislative history to conclude the creators of budget reconciliation understood “the potential for abuse” of its expedited process, making revisions to a budget the exception rather than the rule.

In plain English, a national or economic calamity — say, 9/11, the financial crash of 2008, or the economic panic when COVID-19 first hit last spring — would constitute justifiable grounds for Congress to revise its budget. Democrat leaders looking for another opportunity to pass a reconciliation bill on a party-line vote does not.

Why Does Budget Reconciliation Matter?

Established by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, the budget reconciliation process allows the Senate to consider bills under expedited procedures, with limits on both amendments and the time for debate.

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