The 107th Congress in 2001 and 2002, which spent most of its time split with Democrats running the Senate and Republicans running the House, sent 39 bills to conference. The 108th Congress sent 47 bills to be negotiated.
Since then, it’s been a steady decline to 31, then 24 and finally to 18 bills in the most recent Congress.
That decline illustrates a major change in the understanding of the government that the Founding Fathers had in mind.
For them, clashes between the two chambers were safeguards against rash action or the trampling of liberties. They envisioned lively debate in each chamber as a way of making sure that any bill that passed out of Congress had been carefully examined and garnered widespread support.
That is captured in a story that has made the rounds of the House for years, attributed to an early generation’s various senior statesmen: A young Democratic House lawmaker calls House Republicans the “enemy,” and a more experienced colleague pulls the man aside and says, “The Republicans are the opposition. The Senate is the enemy.”
For most of the past decade, though, members of the House don’t see the Senate as the enemy but rather as an ally and count on the upper chamber’s minority party to use a filibuster to gum up the works on big bills.
Now, instead of seeking to hammer out disagreements between the two chambers, Washington’s political culture expects agreements to be reached in closed-door negotiations of the president and congressional leaders, or on the floor of one chamber and presented to the other as a take-it-or-leave-it deal.
In lieu of conferences, both chambers have taken to what is called “pingponging” — one chamber will pass a bill, the other will pass an amendment rewriting the bill, then the first will consider those amendments and send back another version altogether. The process continues until both pass the same version.
Complicating matters, Mr. Boehner twice this year entered into backroom negotiations with President Obama and Mr. Reid rather than insist on going to conference committees to work out differences in April’s spending fight and the July debt fight.
Speaking to reporters this week, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who has been the No. 2 Democrat when his party was in both the majority and minority, said accepting Senate bargains is often the lot of the House.
He said that was the situation when Democrats held the majority and Congress was debating updates to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Much of the controversy centered on provisions for warrantless wiretaps that many liberals opposed.
“We ultimately took their deal, not because we liked it, not because we didn’t think we ought to go to conference, but because we thought the security of the country demanded, at least in the short term, that we act on their extension, which we did as Democrats,” he said.