Monday, January 4, 2010

Ping Pong? So What?

Health care is not going to conference.  Formal conference, that is.  So reports Jon Cohn, and it certainly sounds right.  Ezra Klein complains that this is a yet another bad thing caused by Republican obstructionism, and on the surface that's correct: Republicans threatened to use procedural shenanigans to slow down normally routine things such as appointing conferees.

However, that's not the whole story.  Republicans surely knew that the Democrats would respond by avoiding a formal conference, and they didn't mind...because they knew that the formal conference wouldn't be the "real" conference.  In fact, as Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein documented in The Broken Branch (and a subsequent column about the Democrats in the last Congress, which unfortunately I can't seem to find anywhere), the formal conference hasn't been the real conference for some time now.  Instead, key majority party leaders from both Houses have been meeting informally, and then either using "ping pong" techniques to avoid the formal conference, or getting formal conference approval as, well, a mere formality.  In other words, the decline of conference committees is part of the increasing trend towards majority party rule, not an example of obstruction by the minority. 

I don't think I have any major problem with this particular instance of majority party rule.  I'm more sympathetic to minority party complaints about severely restrictive rules on the House floor (which was certainly the case with health care), and to a lesser extent the use of the leadership, and not committees, to fashion bills in the first place.  Essentially, I think it's important for the minority party, in each House, to have at least one real opportunity to take their shots at bills, either to improve it, or to point out what they believe are its flaws, or to try to find a coalition in favor of an alternative.  I'm not convinced that it's necessary that the minority have that level of input at every step along the way.  The only caveat is that the later steps should not make the previous steps irrelevant -- as might be the case if the only avenue for substantive input is at the committee level, but committee versions are discarded in favor of leadership-drafted versions. 

Moreover, regardless of what I or anyone else thinks is good democratic practice, I think the evidence shows that a dictatorship of the majority party leadership is inherently unstable.  That's the lesson of the revolt against strong Speakers around the turn of the 20th century, and it's the lesson of the fall of Speakers Wright and Gingrich more recently.  For those of us who have concerns about an overly majoritarian process, that's a good thing -- it means that if the leadership tries to force things through that do not actually have solid majority party support, the odds are that before long the majority party won't stand for it. 

As far as the current situation is concerned, however, I don't think it's a very big deal at all.  Republicans (especially in the Senate) have had their chances to offer amendments, and it doesn't look as if they're very interested in doing so.  Given those conditions, whether or not the Democrats bother with a formal conference committee seems pretty much a nonissue to me.

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