Note to The Times: Conferences Upended by GOP, Not Dems
by Jonathan Singer, Wed Sep 26, 2007 at 07:33:36 AM EDT
During the current Congress, the conference process by which the House and the Senate come together to turn two different versions of the same legislation into one has been upended, with the Democrats moving out of the traditional process into a more ad hoc one in which the leaders come together to hash out a similar deal, but outside of the normal scrutiny afforded to the more normal process. Whose fault is it that this situation has emerged? The press has come to its normal conclusion -- that both sides are equally at fault. Take a look at this article from The New York Times' Carl Hulse.
The Congressional conference committee, vaguely familiar to generations of Americans from their battered civics texts, is in danger of losing its prominent role in how a bill becomes law.
Once the penultimate stage in the life of any bill as a forum for House and Senate members to work out their differences, the conference committee has fallen on hard times, shoved aside in the last five years by partisanship and legislative expediency. As a result, there is often no public scrutiny of the last-minute compromises that produce a law.
The preferred alternative revolves around informal meetings mainly among senior Democratic lawmakers, who gather to cut a final deal and then bat the finished product back and forth between the House and Senate until it is approved. It is a makeshift process that has come to be known as Ping-Ponging.
Democrats blame Republicans for balking at negotiations over the health and ethics bills to prevent Democrats from posting any victories. Republicans say Democrats began the decline of the conference committee when they still controlled the Senate in 2002 and did not want anything to do with House Republicans.
Hulse gets the story a quarter right in that last graf quoted above. Indeed the Republicans have balked at negotiations over bills like S-CHIP reauthorization and ethics reform -- but that's not the full extent of it. Hulse does note that, for instance, on the ethics bill Senate Republicans refused to le the bill go to conference through a hold spearheaded by South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint. Hulse fails to mention, however, that Senate Republicans did the exact same thing on the children's healthcare bill, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell refusing to appoint conferees.
So the culpability here is rather unambiguous. Whatever the Republicans say about Democratic obstructionism in the past -- claims that are vastly overstated, but I can leave that to a later post -- it's completely immaterial to the issue at hand. Democrats are resorting to creative legislative processes due to the simple fact that the Republicans are refusing -- refusing -- to allow the normal processes that have worked for more than two centuries to go forward. It's that simple.