Note to The Times: Conferences Upended by GOP, Not Dems

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.

Tags: 110th congress, Democrats, Republicans, Senate (all tags)



Re: Note to The Times: Conferences Upended by GOP,

Good post, Jonathan.  Whoever was originally to blame for the disruption of the conference process, it's indisputable that for several years prior to 2006, Republicans repeatedly shut Democrats out of the conference process altogether.

And then when Democrats return to power and try to set things right by including the Republicans in the process, as it should be, the Republicans slap away the olive branch by obstructing the conference process and refusing to name their conferees, thus preventing the conference from going forward.

Under the circumstances, Democrats are doing the only thing they can do by negotiating the bills between the two houses outside of the conference process.  At any time, if the Republicans want to come to the table and be heard, all they have to do is stop obstructing and start appointing conferees like they're supposed to.

The reality is that these Republicans think obstruction is to their political advantage.  They see no reason to negotiate in good faith; they think they can just obstruct everything the Democrats try to do like in the 1993-94 session and that they'll be rewarded for it again.

We have a better message machine than we did in the 90s so hopefully the public won't get fooled again.

by Steve M 2007-09-26 07:54AM | 0 recs
ping pong vs. conference

If I had to choose between a conference committee that radicially changed bills in secret and then forced members of Congress to vote up or down versus a "ping pong" strategy which attempted to pass identical bills in both chambers, I would pick ping pong every day, regardless of who holds the majority.

While a ping pong bill might get a closed rule in the House, there is no way a closed rule can happen in the Senate on non-appropriations bills.  That means there will be a heck of a lot more transparancy and less of a chance that senior leaders can craft laws and then force people to vote against puppies at the 11th hour.

by DaveB 2007-09-26 08:04AM | 0 recs
Re: ping pong vs. conference

The ping-pong system is generally referred to as a "navette" system and it's the way most grown up democracies do it.  I really hate conference committees for exactly the reason you describe--it's not transparent.  This is just one of the big problems with the way our country works.

by Reece 2007-09-26 09:04AM | 0 recs
Re: ping pong vs. conference

Is the ping pong strategy really more transparent, though?  I mean, at the end of the day, you have to try and pass the same bill in both houses, the only question is how you negotiate what that bill looks like.  I don't know of any procedure that makes the negotiation a transparent process.

by Steve M 2007-09-26 09:11AM | 0 recs
Re: ping pong vs. conference

Yeah, I would say it's more transparent than having an unrepresentative group meet in secret to hash out the details.  Sure, we might not know exactly how everything is negotiated, but at least it ensures that the decisions are made by the House as a whole (or the Senate as a whole).  That may not be transparency is we typically think about it, but it's better.  

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it was my understanding that when the Republicans ran the Congress, it was typical for "moderate" bills to be passed by the House, only to be modified in conference committees by the most extreme elements of the party in order to produce terrible legislation.  Then the "moderates" could claim they voted for a good bill but then ultimately support the extremes--they'd have it both ways.  

So, my point is that a navette system forces the individual members of congress to be responsible for what gets passed, because it's going to have to go through all the normal processes in order to reach the compromise with the senate.  

Some negotiation is going to happen with any bill, even before it needs to be unified in both houses.  So, I'm not sure that we can create a system with perfect transparency.

by Reece 2007-09-26 02:35PM | 0 recs
Republicans still do better than Dems --way better

At getting the media to adopt their frames.

by dpANDREWS 2007-09-26 08:45AM | 0 recs


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