Public Law & Legal Theory
The year 2017 was, among other distinctions, the year of the Byrd rule. This once-obscure Senate procedural provision—on the books since 1985 but only recently the stuff of page one news1 — featured prominently in several failed attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in the spring and summer. Then again at year’s end, the Byrd rule played a central role in the successful effort to rewrite large swaths of the Internal Revenue Code. While the Byrd rule has influenced the legislative process in the past, never before has it drawn so much attention from the mainstream and trade press, and never before has it shaped so consequential a law in such a significant way.
One theme that runs throughout this article is that when it comes to the budget math mandated by the Byrd rule, numbers can obscure the truth. But in other respects, numbers accurately illustrate the Byrd rule’s trajectory. Figure 1 tracks the number of articles referencing the Byrd rule in the archives of the New York Times and the tax trade publication Tax Notes Weekly over the last three decades. According to both metrics, interest in the Byrd rule soared to new heights in the first year of the Trump presidency.
The Byrd rule’s impact can be seen all throughout the new tax law, starting from the top. It was the Byrd rule that blocked the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” from becoming the bill’s short title. As a result, the most important tax legislation in more than thirty years will go down in history unmelodiously as “An act to provide for reconciliation pursuant to titles II and V of the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2018.” The Byrd rule also is the reason that key elements of the new tax law—including the reduction in individual income tax rates, the expansion of the child tax credit, the increase in the standard deduction, the new deduction for pass-through income, and the increase in the estate and gift tax exemption—are set to expire at the end of 2025. And the Byrd rule is the reason why a number of provisions that appeared in earlier versions of the bill— including a measure that would have allowed 501(c)(3) organizations to participate in political campaigns, several significant changes to the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, and the repeal of the tax-exempt s of professional sports leagues—all were eliminated from the final legislation.
Some of these consequences were predictable from the outset. Even before details of the tax bill emerged, many commentators drew attention2 to the provision of the Byrd rule barring budget reconciliation bills that add to the deficit beyond the budget window, which in this case was ten years3. Informed observers thus expected—correctly, as it turned out—that the Byrd rule would compel Congress to phase out important elements of the bill, just as the Byrd rule resulted in the sunset of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts.4 In other cases, even seasoned Senators were blindsided by the Byrd rule’s ramifications. Indeed, the Byrd rule’s little-understood requirement that every provision in a reconciliation bill must produce revenue effects that are more than “merely incidental” to the non-budgetary consequences caused a minor crisis in the moments leading up to final passage of the 2017 tax legislation, with the House of Representatives ultimately having to pass the conference report twice before leaving Washington for the winter holiday.5
In all likelihood, this is not the last time that the Byrd rule will play a conspicuous and consequential role in the tax legislative process. Increasing political polarization, combined with the reality that neither party appears poised to capture a filibuster-proof Senate majority in the foreseeable future, will lead to greater reliance on budget reconciliation to enact tax legislation. Congressional contentiousness—which is unlikely to abate any time soon—will cause Senators to invoke the Byrd rule against potential violations that went unchallenged in past reconciliation efforts. The party in power can preempt some Byrd rule challenges by adopting a longer budget window or setting a higher ceiling on the allowable deficit impact. Yet as long as the Byrd rule remains binding, the rule’s restrictions will influence the procedure and substance of federal tax law.
Some of the Byrd rule’s results are—at least arguably—quite welcome. Not only does the Byrd rule impose a measure of fiscal discipline on Congress, but it also stands in the way of some provisions that do little more than reward politically well-connected special interests. Moreover, by narrowing the set of issues that can be the subject of budget negotiations, the Byrd rule may reduce the risk of holdup and hasten arrival at compromise. And at least as compared to the alternative of a budget reconciliation process without any limitations as to scope, the Byrd rule preserves a role for the minority party in the Senate, potentially promoting a more consensus-oriented approach to lawmaking.
In other respects, the Byrd rule’s ramifications are more disconcerting. The song and dance of setting deficit targets and then complying with those targets through sunset provisions arguably allows lawmakers to maintain the appearance of fiscal discipline without exercising such discipline in fact. And ironically, the Byrd rule has stood in the way of various measures that would have imposed further fiscal discipline on the budget reconciliation process and that would have closed apparent loopholes. The Byrd rule’s “merely incidental” limit also constrains Congress from enacting tax simplification measures through budget reconciliation, and the deficit-related restrictions result in a code that is cluttered with temporary and dormant provisions. Finally, the Byrd rule reduces the transparency of a tax legislative process that already seems inscrutable to many voters. To address this last problem, this article tentatively suggests several steps that Senators, their staffs, and the Senate Parliamentarian might take to make the Byrd rule’s operation somewhat less opaque.
This article proceeds in four parts. Part I provides an overview of the budget reconciliation process and explains the Byrd rule’s role in that process. Part II examines how the Senate Parliamentarian—the nonpartisan official tasked with interpreting most elements of the Byrd rule—has construed the rule’s provisions in past reconciliation efforts. Part III turns toward the bill formerly known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, and explains how the Byrd rule shaped Congress’s final product. The article ends in Part IV with a reflection on the Byrd rule’s future and evaluates the practical and normative implications of the Byrd rule’s ever-more-prominent role.
Ellen P. Aprill & Daniel J. Hemelm "The Tax Legislative Process: A Byrd's Eye View". Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers, no. 667 (2018).