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Jim Horney Walks You Through Conference Committee

During a conference call yesterday, President Obama was pretty explicit in naming conference committee as the juncture at which the White House would get directly and forcefully involved in shaping the final bills. But conference committee is a relatively obscure corner of the legislative process. So I asked Jim Horney, an expert on congressional process who makes his home at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, to walk us through it. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Give me the summary explanation of "conference committee."

Conference committee is the most common way -- particularly for controversial legislation -- for working out differences for legislation between the House and Senate.

Why do bills end up there?

You don't always need a conference. If the House passes a bill and the Senate simply likes it, they can pass it unchanged and send it to the president. Or the Senate can add an amendment and the House can adopt that amendment too. But if the differences are complicated, that process is impossible. So the House and Senate declare they've reached disagreement and send that bill to a conference committee in which members of the House and Senate work out agreement on the legislation and recommend that the House and Senate adopt that agreement. The product of that agreement is called the "conference report."

And what happens when the conference report goes back to the House and Senate?

Generally, it has somewhat expedited consideration. That simply means you don't need a rule in the House to bring it up. And you vote it up or down. It still can be filibustered, but in general, you cannot offer amendments to it. You either approve it or disapprove it.

Is it rare for a conference report to be filibustered?

Most of the time if you got to a conference with it, it means you had enough consensus in the two bodies to pass the original legislation. But if there are enough changes in conference, then senators sometimes oppose it. I wouldn't suggest to anyone that a bill with a lot of opposition and that was changed in conference to make it more to the liking of the House is protected from the filibuster.

That would seem to increase the leverage on senators though. They can't filibuster it to change it, or to add an amendment. If they filibuster, they're essentially opposing the whole bill.

It's a different dynamic. You can't filibuster it to change it. It's a whole lot more pressure.

So who does the negotiating in conference committee? Who chooses the negotiators?

Typically, it's the chairmen of the committees with jurisdiction and typically members of those same committees. Sometimes you get a member of another committee that offered a significant amendment that was adopted. It's up to the leadership, though. The speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader consult with the minority leadership to decide the ratio of majority to minority members, but that generally reflects the ratios present in the two bodies.

It's also important to know that you don't have a vote of the whole membership of the conference committee. It's the members of the conference committee from the House and the members of the conference committee from the Senate. It wouldn't matter if the House had 30 negotiators and the Senate had 10. It would be a vote with the House's 30 and within the Senate's 10.

How drastically can they change the bill?

Both bodies have rules about the scope of conference. Generally, you're not supposed to change things that both bodies have agreed to and you're not supposed to add new matter that was not included by either body. But it can be unclear what that means in a big and complicated bill like health-care reform. When you start working out the differences, it's not easy to say whether something is a modification or an addition. You can end up with something that looks different than what either body proposed but is ruled to be the best way to merge the approaches of the two bodies.

And what's the president's role in all this?

The president has no formal role. This is a purely legislative matter. But at that point, presidents can definitely get involved talking to the leaders and the members of the conference committee. The reason that presidents tend to get involved at conference is that, first, it's the final opportunity. If they don't get involved there, they're not getting involved. But second, it takes different things to get a bill through the House and the Senate. It's tricky for the president to agree to different things in different bodies. So it's not unusual for a president to get involved at conference committee.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 21, 2009; 4:01 PM ET
Categories:  Congress , Health Reform , Interviews  
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"conference committee is a relatively obscure corner of the legislative process"

Seriously? Obscure? Are you kidding?

Posted by: ostap666 | July 21, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

ostap666: I think Ezra meant that the press and public don't understand the process, and they clearly don't.

Most important thing about the conference: the lobbyists swarm the conference members and their staffs. Deals are squirreled away in obscure language. The conference committee is the smoke-filled room of the 19th/20th century. Sometimes a single word change can change legislative intent, and conference reports are rushed to floor with the clear intent (both parties, often) of overwhelming the full bodies with a multi-hundred page bill that calls the murder a suicide, hides the body, destroys the autopsy, loses the evidence, and bribes/threatens witnesses. And, pays off the judge, all to often.

The nay-sayers always prevail it seems. The bloody knives are used again and again, mixing the DNA samples.

The conference report this time will be reform without reform. Cost tons of money and be paid for with phony offsets. It will be promoted as the height of goodness and evil simultaneously, and the public will be rightly confused because it all happens too fast to get the facts out (if that is the objective).

There has to be a process like conferences, but the result should not be voted upon for 60 days, with no filibusters in the Senate. There is NO sunshine in a conference report.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | July 21, 2009 6:30 PM | Report abuse

The real key is who is on the conference committee and if Miller, Rangel, Waxman and whoever represents the Senate HELP Committee can form a strong enough bloc to ensure a progressive bill gets reported out.

Posted by: paulrichardson82 | July 21, 2009 10:06 PM | Report abuse

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