With health care and student loan reform passed, one of the next tasks Congress will soon take up is the annual budget. The “budget resolution” is a non-binding resolution by Congress outlining how they plan to spend money. The budget resolution is not law (so doesn't need to be signed by the President), and, as a result of the Senate rules officially limiting debate time, it can't be filibustered. From the perspective of progressives hoping to achieve policy change over Republican and Conservative Democratic obstructionism, the most important part of non-binding budget resolutions is the potential to include reconciliation instructions. Reconciliation instructions allow Congress to later take up a reconciliation bill that can't be filibustered in the Senate, and, as a result, is one of the best hopes for passing progressive legislation.
Budget reconciliation bills follow different rules from almost any other bill in Congress. In the Senate, debate is limited to only 20 hours, and no part of the bill can violate the Byrd rule (the bill must relate to the budget). Since debate is limited in the Senate, that means budget reconciliation bills can't be filibustered and need only simply majority to pass. As we have seen, this can be a powerful tool for progressive change. With helath care and student lending reform coming under the last budget’s instructions, we see how critical reconciliation instructions can be.
The ability to make later changes to the Senate health care bill that couldn't be filibustered by using reconciliation played an important role in convincing House Democrats to first vote for the Senate version unchanged. A more dramatic example is the huge progressive victory scored with student loan reform, which was also part of the recently passed reconciliation bill. Student loan reform ended tens of billions of dollars in government waste going to enrich banks as part of a huge corporate welfare program, and redirected much of the money to help needy students afford college. The changes could never have passed under regular order because all the Republicans plus a few Democrats, like Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Ben Nelson (D-NE), were determined to use the filibuster to protect the profits of the private lenders at huge expense to the taxpayer.
To bring up a reconciliation bill, Congress must first include reconciliation instructions to deal with a specific issue in a budget resolution. This is why the reconciliation instructions included in the upcoming budget resolution are so important.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) promised Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) a vote on the public option in the next few months. The public option can't overcome a filibuster, so its only hope of becoming law is using a reconciliation bill. The only way a reconciliation bill can be used to pass a public option is if Congress first passed a budget resolution with reconciliation instructions that could be used for health care-related matters. If the upcoming budget does not include reconciliation instructions that could be used for health care, then you know Reid and Sanders were just blowing smoke.
The potential progressive use of reconciliation goes well beyond possibly creating a public option. There are many "budget related" reforms that our country needs that may have majority support in the Senate, but probably can't get 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Reconciliation could, in theory, be used to deal with global warming by putting a price on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Potentially, reconciliation could even be used to deal with the problem in the financial sector of “too big to fail” by using taxes and fees to make it unprofitable for a financial institution to reach a very large size and/or level of inter-connectivity. It even might be possible to get a form of public campaign financing passed using reconciliation to try to deal with the "Citizens United" ruling.
Even with health care reform, adding a public option is only one of the many improvements that could be achieved using reconciliation. The new money for the high risk pool will likely run out well before 2014 (PDF), so that program will need more funding. Extra money could also be provided for states that want to institute early exchange pilot programs or expand Medicaid sooner. Reconciliation could potentially (depending on the interpretation of the Byrd rule) be used to add a state single payer opt-out, Medicare buy-in, create state or national all-payer systems, create a national exchange, increase the minimum medical loss ratio, provide more affordability tax credits, etc.
If you want a piece of progressive legislation to pass in this current political environment, you are going to want reconciliation instructions included in the upcoming budget resolution that could be potentially used to such ends. The budget reconciliation instructions alone do not guarantee that you will get the reconciliation package you want, but it is a critical first step. If Democrats don't include any reconciliation instructions in the budget, regardless the purpose, it will be a foolish act of unilateral disarmament in the face of Republican obstructionism. It will also be proof that Reid’s promise of a public option vote in the next few months was never meant to mean anything more than a meaningless show vote, destined to fail.