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Budget Reconciliation Explained Through Chutes And Ladders

Think of reconciliation as the biggest ladder in the game Chutes and Ladders — a procedural shortcut. But a presidential veto of whatever gets passed through reconciliation means tumbling back down a chute.
Ben Husmann
Think of reconciliation as the biggest ladder in the game Chutes and Ladders — a procedural shortcut. But a presidential veto of whatever gets passed through reconciliation means tumbling back down a chute.

There's a word you're going to be hearing a lot as Congress tries to pass a budget this year: reconciliation. It's a procedural fast-track lawmakers get to use after they approve a budget. Republicans are hoping to repeal the Affordable Care Act — or, at least parts of it — through reconciliation, but they're not likely to win that game.

Maybe the best way to think about reconciliation is through the favorite board game Chutes and Ladders. The object is to get to the very last square on the board. You can zip up there really fast if you landed on the ladders — or, you can slide backward if you landed on a chute.

Now, think of repealing the Affordable Care Act as climbing to that last 100th square. And think of reconciliation as the biggest ladder on the board — that one right in the middle that catapults you 56 squares in one move.

You see, reconciliation is a procedural shortcut — it allows legislation to get through the Senate with only 51 votes, instead of 60.

But here's the reality: The president would veto any repeal of Obamacare. That's like him sending Republicans down that really long chute that goes almost to the bottom.

Now, Republicans can eventually climb to 100 one day — all they would need is a Republican president, 60 Republicans in the Senate and a Republican-controlled House. That would certainly get them a repeal of the health care law. It just might take awhile.

So that's why budget reconciliation is the best thing they have going on right now.

"This is budget theater of the absurd. That's all this is," said Stan Collender, who spent years as a staffer on budget committees.

Collender said repealing Obamacare through reconciliation is a pipe dream. First, before Republicans can even use the tool of reconciliation, they need to pass a budget. Those are the rules of the game. But right now, Republicans are at odds about how the budget should look.

"The House and Senate both have to pass their own budget resolutions, agree on a compromise and then pass the compromise. And it's not clear to me that they're going to have the time or the political will to be able to do that this year," Collender said.

So if Republicans can't agree on a budget, it's like they can't even take the game out of the box. But even if they can agree, and get to use reconciliation, they won't be able to repeal all of Obamacare.

"All of the items that are included in a reconciliation bill have to be directly related to the budget," said Maya McGuineas, who heads the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

She said that's another rule of the game: For an item to pass through reconciliation, it needs to actually affect the budget.

"So Obamacare is kind of a vast and sprawling policy. And if the goal is to repeal all of the tax and spending parts of Obamacare, that could be done through reconciliation. But there are a whole lot of regulations and administrative provisions which were also in it which won't be able to be repealed," said McGuineas.

She's referring to regulations such as those stopping insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions or making women pay more for insurance.

Ultimately though, there are some Republicans who are asking: Why even bother with this?

"Even if you did use reconciliation to repeal the health care law — I mean, the president would then veto the bill, so we really wouldn't accomplish anything," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.

So maybe instead of wasting reconciliation on something that has no hope of becoming law, Dent says Republicans might want to use it for something achievable. Something modest. Forget climbing to 100.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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