Closed-door payroll-tax holiday deals now the norm

Effort to reach agreement stymied in public

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Bitterly divided Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill aren’t making much progress publicly on a legislative deal that would extend the national payroll-tax holiday, continue unemployment benefits to the long-term jobless and grant full payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients.

But if lawmakers can’t hammer out an agreement the old-fashioned way, in open meetings, look for party leaders to revert to the more-recent norm — striking a deal behind closed doors.

The 20-member payroll-tax conference committee, lead by House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, Michigan Democrat, held its fourth public meeting Tuesday, racing a soft deadline to come up with a draft agreement next week to extend the temporary tax holiday. A two-month extension expires at the end of this month, and talks so far have not been encouraging.

“I’m trying to put the best face on it. The reality is that as of today we haven’t made much progress,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and a member of the conference committee. “And time’s a-wasting if we’re going to get this done.”

Conference committees used to be the standard way Congress reconciled competing House and Senate bills. But their frequency has plunged in the past decade. And the number of meaningful, productive conference committees has waned to the point of near extinction.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, with his House counterpart, has circumvented the committee conference system by brokering "grand bargains." (Associated Press)

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, with his House counterpart, has ... more >

“Most of the tough decisions, even when the chambers go to conference, are made behind closed doors, sometimes by staff but more often in today’s environment when party leaders sign off on an agreement,” said Sarah A. Binder, a congressional expert with the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “Today, there is much less deference to committee chairs” by party leadership.

In the 1970s, at least 75 conference committees were organized each year, and at least 100 were conducted in six of those years. By 2010, only two here held, with six last year.

But most conference committees in recent years have been mere formalities and produced no actual legislation. The last time legislation was drafted in the open via a conference committee was 2010’s controversial Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

“It’s unfortunate, because I think it really is another element of the demise of the regular order, and it’s the way you’re supposed to do business” in Congress, said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank.

Instead, the top party leaders of each chamber — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican — have circumvented the conference committee system by brokering “grand bargain” deals crafted with limited input from their members.

The reasons are many. Conference committees are conducted in public, a messy and potentially embarrassing forum compared with closed-door meetings. And committee chairman and ranking minority members in recent years have been weary of making decisions or brokering deals without the direct approval of their party leaders.

“A lot of things happen in public and you have to bring in some members of the other party,” Mr. Ornstein said. “You can find other ways to do it where you don’t find that a necessity. So we saw fewer of them as a consequence of that.”

The payroll-tax conference stems from December, when the GOP-controlled House and Democrat-run Senate couldn’t agree on how to pay for a planned full-year extension of a 2 percent Social Security payroll-tax holiday.

House Republicans accepted the Democrats‘ two-month stopgap proposal in exchange for Mr. Reid agreeing to go to a conference committee.

But party leaders are pessimistic.

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