Senior Democrats are already eyeing the special legislative vehicle to disperse trillions of dollars in policy priorities, including for a massive infrastructure plan backed by a prospective Biden administration.
“I don’t think there’s any question of whether we’d use it, if we had to,” House Budget Chair John Yarmuth said in an interview. “The possibilities are endless. I think you’d want to do it for the biggest possible package you could.”
An infrastructure package would be a good start, Yarmuth said, since the price tag will likely top $1 trillion.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a Budget Committee member who also serves as co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said reconciliation presents Democrats with an opportunity to make extensive investments in infrastructure, clean energy, health care and other areas.
“This is the time to do that,” she said. “We have to use every tool in our toolbox … We have to be bold. This is not a time for meekness, this is not a time for incremental change.”
It’s also possible that Democrats would turn to reconciliation for a massive health care expansion if the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act, said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a senior appropriator.
“We’re going to have to be thoughtful,” Wasserman Schultz said. “There’s a lot of pent-up frustration and a lot of pent-up desire.“ The high court will take up a Trump administration-backed case targeting the 2010 health law just days after the election.
Reconciliation will be especially necessary if Democrats win a majority in the Senate and choose not to not eliminate the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold, Yarmuth said. Under reconciliation procedures, only a simple majority is needed to pass legislation in the Senate, though certain limitations apply.
But first, lawmakers may have to address some unfinished business from the previous Congress. Democratic leaders have signaled their first priority would be another multi-trillion-dollar coronavirus relief package if Congress and the Trump administration can’t reach a deal by early next year. Lawmakers may also have to finalize appropriations bills for the current fiscal year if they punt a Dec. 11 government funding deadline into early 2021.
Beyond that, Congress is effectively entering new budget territory. A two-year budget deal struck by congressional leaders and the White House last summer carried lawmakers through the final years of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which established caps on how much money Congress can spend for a decade.
Now, there are no restrictions in place for fiscal 2022, meaning lawmakers will have to decide how to approach overall totals for defense and non-defense discretionary spending next year. Those levels are set at $740.5 billion and $634.5 billion in fiscal 2021, respectively.
For Democrats, that could mean having a more intense discussion about the size of the Pentagon’s budget and how it squares with the party’s ambitious domestic priorities.
“There will be a fight, no question,” said House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith earlier this month of progressive calls to shrink military spending. “There will be those Democrats who want to substantially cut the defense budget. I don’t believe it is the majority of my party and I know it is not the position of the Biden-Harris ticket.”
Jayapal, who has long-called for significant defense spending cuts, said there “has to be” a reckoning over the Pentagon’s budget. In particular, she said it’s time to ditch the approach of pursuing equal increases in defense and non-defense spending that has characterized life under the Budget Control Act.
“This will be a top priority of the progressive caucus — to really get some meaningful budget cuts in Pentagon spending this next cycle,” she said. “It shouldn’t be considered patriotic to just sign up for more money for defense contractors.”
As chair of the House Budget Committee, Yarmuth said he’ll look to write a budget resolution — a fiscal roadmap that isn’t signed into law — that has broad support from the caucus and a possible Biden administration on issues like military funding.
More broadly, Yarmuth said he wants to shift the conversation away from worries over widening deficits toward how Congress can make sizable but effective investments for the country.
“There’s really been no negative economic impact from a doubling of the national debt,” he said. “I think economists are thinking differently about the national debt and how much room we have in the economy for fiscal stimulus. … We can afford to do almost anything we want to do.”
Yarmuth will have good company if Democrats manage to secure a majority in the upper chamber. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a staunch supporter of Medicare for All, is poised to helm the Senate Budget Committee. Of course, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi — and a President Biden — would have final say over any spending decisions pursued by the party.
Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Wasserman Schultz, who are in the running to replace retiring House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), have both introduced appropriations reform plans that would target greater investments in some of the most underserved communities.
“We have a real opportunity to infuse equity and justice throughout our budget process,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Some House appropriators are also eyeing a return to the politically taboo practice of earmarked spending, albeit with stronger transparency and oversight controls. While the notion has raised some concerns among the most vulnerable House Democrats, there’s growing demand for a system to ensure that members once again have the chance to secure cash for projects at home.
“We have to find a balance,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who’s also running for Appropriations chair, in an interview last month. “I think that with proper oversight and acknowledging what happened before, we can design a much more open and fair process.”
One other politically dicey reform Democrats may consider as the debt limit approaches next July is whether a cap on the nation’s borrowing authority is really necessary at all. Too often, critics say, the debt ceiling has simply been used to foment political brinkmanship. But it’s unclear if Democratic leaders would want to spend the kind of political capital to eliminate it, especially with so many other priorities in play.