What can the Mass. delegation do?

With the GOP in charge, the short answer is, not a lot.

MASSACHUSETTS VOTERS RAN against the grain on Election Day and returned to Washington the nine incumbents who represent the Bay State in the House. They join fellow Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey in the Senate.

So when their Republicans colleagues who control both the House and Senate move this year to push through a sweeping budget reconciliation bill that could fundamentally alter the government’s role in Americans’ lives, the state’s delegation will be frozen out of the process entirely.

Their message to their constituents is simple: We don’t have the power to stop Republicans now. Only the American people, by voicing their opposition loudly and firmly, can.

Through budget reconciliation, Republicans can make changes to the tax code, the safety net, Medicare, Civil Service, and military retirement benefits, and repeal much of President Obama’s health care law with a simple majority vote. Senators are not allowed to filibuster reconciliation bills.

Only one of the state’s senators or representatives, Seth Moulton of Salem, has recent experience on the Budget Committee. Moulton, in his first term in the House, was the lowest ranking member on the budget panel and barely made a ripple. He began his second term this month, after winning re-election unopposed in November.

He says he’s still sorting out how he’ll approach the budget bill. “At this stage, we’re still just starting to look at this,” he says. “Neither Republicans nor Democrats know where this is headed.”

Still, Moulton knows he can do little more than make noise and he is looking to step up. After all, he bucked his party’s leadership in running against incumbent John F. Tierney in the 2014 Democratic primary and he reprised that insurgent role in November, when he wrote to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California to ask her to delay the elections in which House Democrats select their leaders for the next congressional session.

A number of Massachusetts colleagues signed on, including Springfield’s Richard Neal, Somerville’s Michael E. Capuano, and South Boston’s Stephen Lynch. Pelosi agreed to push off the election.

When they voted after Thanksgiving, Democrats decided to keep Pelosi at the helm. Moulton says it was not his purpose to displace her; rather, he says, he wants Democrats to think harder about how to appeal to voters. “It’s clear that we need to change. What I want to see is change within the caucus, change within the party,” he says.

Moulton says he is not planning a leadership run himself, but the letter to Pelosi was a bold one for a 38-year-old House sophomore. It may set up the Iraq war veteran and Harvard College graduate for bigger things down the road, should his fellow Democrats become as impatient with the party’s long stay in the minority (now at least eight years) as he is.

The letter exposed fissures in the House Democratic caucus that no one knew existed, with members of the Black Caucus joining Moulton along with old bulls such as Neal, who is in his 15th term.

When it came time to vote, 63 Democrats voted for Pelosi’s rival, Tim Ryan of Ohio, the most op-position she has ever faced. And there is growing consensus in the caucus that Democrats’ only hope to forestall a far-reaching reconciliation bill is to turn directly to the American people and convince them to raise hell.

“Having those voices heard and making sure they understand what the implications of reconciliation are is going to be critically important,” says US Rep. Joe Kennedy III of Brookline. (For his part, Kennedy is now wavering a bit about his past refusal to consider a leadership post.)

His view, that the public, more than Democratic lawmakers, is best positioned to stop the GOP reconciliation bill, might come as a surprise to people lulled into the view that Congress is so gridlocked that it can’t get anything done anymore.

After all, over the last six years, Congress’ productivity sank to unprecedented lows, and it became a heavy lift for lawmakers simply to fund the government and authorize payments on government debt.

But that was a result of divided government at a time when partisan loyalties were at their highest levels in modern American history. Now the Republicans, for the first time in a decade, control both the legislative and executive branches.

The Senate filibuster, which allows a minority to block legislation with just 41 votes, cannot stop budget reconciliation. Since Congress created it in 1974, it’s permitted Congress to enact legislation to implement its annual budget with a simple majority vote.

President Ronald Reagan used it to overhaul the tax code in 1981. The welfare reform of 1996 was enacted using reconciliation and Obama and congressional Democrats went through reconciliation in 2010 to finalize the health care law.

There are limits on what can go into the bill. Provisions must be related to federal spending, revenues, or the government’s borrowing authority—not policy—and reconciliation bills generally cannot touch discretionary spending, Social Security, or raise the federal debt.

But that leaves a wide berth and the person who decides what’s permissible, the Senate parliamentarian, is a career official who is now beholden for her job to the Republicans in the Senate.

Paul D. Ryan, the Republican House speaker from Wisconsin, has encouraged his colleagues to “go big” and he’s made no secret of his ambitions, outlined in years of budget proposals he shepherded in his previous role as the House Budget Committee chairman, and in the “Better Way” agenda he created as a campaign platform for GOP lawmakers last year.

His agenda includes proposals to lower corporate income tax rates, to eliminate the estate tax, and to exempt corporations’ overseas earnings from US taxes. Ryan wants to remake the safety net, making it more difficult for able-bodied adults to take food stamps or rental housing assistance, and to reduce the federal government’s role in managing the Medicaid program—which provides health care to the poor—by making the federal contribution a block grant to the states that they would manage.

He could overhaul the Medicare program for seniors, replacing it with vouchers that the elderly could use to buy health plans on the private market.

And it’s expected that reconciliation will repeal much of Obama’s health care law and eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Republicans did both of those in a reconciliation bill they passed in early 2016 as a messaging exercise and an indication to voters of what they could do if a Republican won the White House. Obama vetoed that reconciliation bill, but Republican lawmakers now expect they’ll have a willing partner in President Donald Trump.

How far might Trump and Ryan seek to go? “That’s the $100,000 question,” says Paul Winfree, who served Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions on the Senate Budget Committee before joining the conservative Heritage Foundation in 2015. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump.

It could be a free-for-all. “I suspect what will happen, if budget reconciliation becomes a real thing, you’ll see all these folks come out of woodwork with all these policy proposals they’ve wanted to move for a long time, and they will try to get them into the package,” Winfree adds.

Trump’s signature is not guaranteed, of course. He opposed cuts to Medicare during his campaign and repealing the Medicaid expansion in the health care law could leave millions of lower-middle-income people without health insurance, and pose a serious political risk.

Democrats can hope Trump won’t sign the bill and they can lobby GOP senators to vote no. Maine’s Susan Collins opposed the Obamacare repeal in the 2016 reconciliation bill and surely would again. If a couple more Republican senators balk, it could kill reconciliation again.

While they’re doing that, Democrats need to come up with new ideas and make a better case to voters, says Stephen Lynch.

“We’ve been very aggressive in embracing new and edgier issues,” Lynch says, noting climate change as one. “It’s been somewhat elitist and we have to get back to those lunch bucket issues that are so basic.”

Lynch holds out hope that Trump might skip the controversial changes to the safety net and entitlement programs and work with Democrats on repairing America’s infrastructure and on a tax overhaul that everyone could get behind.

But it’s unclear if Republicans in Congress are still committed to the tax reform long considered the most likely approach to win bipartisan backing: a reduction in rates paired with elimination of loopholes that neither increases nor decreases government revenue.

With reconciliation at their disposal, Republicans can skip the compromising. They could pair wholesale revisions to the health care law with tax cuts and trims to such safety net programs as food stamps and call the budget effects neutral or even a deficit cut.

Elimination of the health care law and cuts to the safety net, the argument would go, will increase economic growth because they’ll prompt people who would otherwise be unable to buy health insurance or purchase food to find jobs, raising tax revenues.

That would mean otherwise budget-busting tax cuts could be enacted, averting a reconciliation rule that bars provisions that will increase the deficit.

Meet the Author

Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
That’s left members of the Massachusetts delegation in Congress feeling just as bereft as their liberal constituents back home.

“A lot of us—a lot of Democrats in the caucus—are genuinely terrified at the prospects of the damage that Trump and a Republican Congress can do,” says US Rep. Jim McGovern of Worcester.