February 26, 2021

If you’ve ever watched “I’m Just a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock, you’re familiar with the process of how a bill becomes a law. But one thing the animated bill from the video may not have explained is how budget reconciliation works. Congress is currently pursuing budget reconciliation to pass the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package based on President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

The bill will supply desperately needed relief and strengthen SNAP, the child nutrition programs, and other anti-poverty programs. So how are the House and Senate planning on getting it passed?

They’re using a special process called budget reconciliation. FRAC recently released a fact sheet on how the process works. Usually, bills need to pass in the Senate with 60 votes to become law. Without 60 votes, a bill can be filibustered—essentially, the bill is subject to nearly unlimited debate and Senators can keep introducing amendments to delay its passage. Sixty votes are needed to stop a filibuster.

In budget reconciliation, however, a bill is not subject to filibuster and can pass in the Senate with 51 votes—a simple majority, which will be needed since there is not enough support for the bill in its current form for it to pass otherwise.

Here’s how it works.

Budget reconciliation can only be used to change spending, revenue, or the debt limit. Each year, Congress must pass a budget resolution that determines the fiscal decisions that Congress makes for the year.

To initiate reconciliation, the House and Senate must agree on a budget resolution that includes reconciliation directives. These directives are instructions for certain committees to change existing law, and the directives also give a dollar target to each of the committees based on how much the changes will cost.

The committees then propose changes to the specified programs. Then committees in each chamber send their proposed revenue and spending recommendation back to the House or Senate budget committee for packaging the bills into an omnibus reconciliation bill.

That bill is then considered by the House and Senate via an expedited process. If there are any differences between the House and Senate versions, those differences must be negotiated via a House-Senate conference committee, a joint committee that works out the differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill.  

Then both houses need to pass identical bills. The beauty of reconciliation is that the bill only needs to pass in the Senate with a simple majority (51 votes). With the Senate split 50/50, in the event of a vote along party lines, Vice President Kamala Harris can cast the deciding vote to ensure the bill passes. Simple, right?

Sometimes, the Senate has skipped the formal committee process. In this case, the Senate waits for the House to pass a reconciliation bill and then takes that bill directly to the Senate floor. This happened most recently in 2017.

The House Committees completed their markups and the House Budget Committee is consolidating and preparing the bill for the House Floor. The House is expected to vote on the bill by the end of this week. Next step, Senate action. 

FRAC supports the passage of this reconciliation bill that will ensure tens of millions of people who are struggling with hunger get the nutrition and other critical support they need. Stay tuned as the House and Senate consider the reconciliation bill in the coming days.