Monday, March 8, 2010

How Conference Committees Died

There's a bit of a dust-up between Byron York and Ezra Klein about conference committees...Klein is a little bit wrong, but York is far more wrong, so I figure I should do a post on it.

First, York:
Now, if you did in fact ask a kid who just took a civics class, she -- could be he! -- might explain that the House and Senate pass bills, and if there are differences between them, the bills usually go to a House/Senate conference committee, where lawmakers appointed by the leaders of both parties resolve the differences between the bills and come up with one final bill, which the House and Senate pass and which then goes to the president's desk for signature into law...Isn't that what a kid who just took a civics class would say? Isn't that what we teach in textbooks? And is that what's being practiced in the case of the national health care bills?
The answer, of course, is no, because Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid, who in the past have been strong advocates of conference committees, decided to skip conference for the health care bill. Why? Because it might be troublesome -- and public. Better to bypass it altogether, assured that Klein and others will devote their energies to attacking Republican irresponsibility.
Klein responds:
Mitch McConnell (under pressure from Jim DeMint and other conservative hardliners) was threatening to object to the appointment of conferees...So Democrats decided to go another way.
Well, yes and no.  It's true that Republicans shut off the possibility of a conference committee by threatening to object to the appointment of conferees, but it's pretty likely that Democrats would have planned to avoid the conference committee anyway -- and certainly would have done so after the Massachusetts Senate election made pass-and-patch the only realistic way to pass the bill.   That's because, contrary to what York believes, conference committees of the type seen in the 1970s and 1980s are no longer standard operating procedure in Congress. 

I'll go through it:

First, during the years that Republicans controlled Congress (and especially 2003-2006), they began using conference committees only to formally ratify decisions that were reached in private, with Democrats excluded from negotiations.

Then, when Democrats took back control of Congress in 2007, they changed the rules (modifying them again in 2009), adding a new point of order that could be used against provisions added in conference that were not in either the House or Senate bill.  The intentions may have been to prevent DeLay-style wholesale rewriting of the bill in conference, but the result was that the Dems switched from using conference committees to "ping-pong" procedures. 

(There's an excellent column by Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein on this, which unfortunately I can't find anywhere; see also their book, The Broken Branch).


  1. Your history is roughly accurate, but York can still be semi-correct, in that the rules still provide for conference committees to be used. It's just that the rules have made them much hairier beasts to use.
    A conference committee approach could still be attempted by Pelosi and Reid. It's just that, given GOP intransigence, the relatively recent rules changes to conf comms, AND the stupid "no behind closed doors" attitude out there, a conference committee attempt is doomed to fail.

    Really, though, York just wants a conference committee because its a useful stalking horse for him to complain about, and Klein is opposed to him because he wants health care reform. Outside of us dry academics, proceduralism is just as dead as federalism. Where a person sits depends on where they stand (on political/policy).

  2. BTW, I don't mean "roughly accurate" as negatively as it comes off now that I read it.

    I mean that, in the context of limited space, you've hit the high points. One could also point to GOP shenanigans with conference comms in the mid 1990s as presaging the Bush-era stuff.


    Was that the essay you were looking for?


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