- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

When E.F. Schumacher published “Small is Beautiful,” 30 years ago, he had no idea his little book about “economics as if people mattered,” would apply to politics and legislation in 2003.

Just days before the economic growth bill passed last week, insiders predicted protracted negotiations between the House and Senate, maybe running through June. Then, keeping with Washington’s stormy spring, lightning struck. After a White House session where President Bush implored congressional leaders to take quick action, lawmakers responded with alacrity, culminating in yesterday’s South Lawn signing ceremony.

Many deserve credit for defying the odds and quickly completing the bill. Yet, Republican lawmakers’ use of an old, but little understood institution — the conference committee, composed of a small group of lawmakers charged with hammering out a compromise — paved the way for swift passage. Walter J. Oleszek of the Congressional Research Service calls conference committees the “third house of Congress.” Skillful use of “the third House” by the Republicans may help enact other important initiatives and serve as an antidote to obstructionism, despite the challenges of a closely divided Senate. When it comes to achieving legislative accomplishments and completing tricky political negotiations, small is beautiful.

Conference committees are older than Congress itself. Mr. Oleszek notes that the Founders were very familiar with the use of conference committees from years of observing and serving in bicameral state legislatures in colonial America. The Framers of the Constitution recognized the need for a smaller, more intimate forum to resolve differences without the distractions and disagreements present in the full House and Senate.

Yet, the conference committee is an even more powerful procedural tool when the same party controls the House and the Senate. It allows the majority party to determine who participates, what is considered and when the product is complete. After a small group negotiates, the “conferees” send the legislation back for one final, “take it or leave it,” up or down vote in each chamber. True, Democrats were unable to filibuster the economic growth conference report legislation because of special budget rules. Technically they could use “extended debate” on other conference reports, requiring Republicans to muster 60 votes to pass the legislation. Nonetheless, regularly blocking Senate consideration of conference reports using filibusters would be unprecedented and a difficult tactic to maintain. Once in conference, GOP lawmakers could include provisions in the final bill that would make it extremely hazardous for Democrats to oppose the final compromise. It is for these reasons that Mr. Oleszek observes that once legislation reaches the conference committee stage, it is almost never defeated.

Last year, differences in bills produced by a Democrat-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House usually spelled the death of the legislation. When the House and Senate did go to conference, it meant a Democratic Senator butting heads with his House Republican counterpart. This year, however, with one party in control of both chambers of Congress, the conference committee becomes a valuable procedural tool.

Controlling “who” negotiates “what,” “when” and “how” is a formidable legislative weapon. In the case of the growth legislation, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, and Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley, Iowa Republican, were able to meet privately and seek a compromise. They did so without the media reporting every potential pothole or the opposition voicing objections. These two lawmakers, with the assistance of White House economic adviser Steve Friedman, controlled the content and timing, and then shaped the result.

Knowing Republicans will control conferences has important implications for other tactical legislative decisions. For example, Republican leaders may choose to accept otherwise objectionable items on the House or Senate floor in order to speed passage of the legislation and just get to the next phase of the process. Once in conference, dropping or recasting objectionable items is a common practice. Mr. Oleszek recounts a humorous anecdote when former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole , Kansas Republican, signaled he would drop some items: “I have indicated to the Senator from Ohio that we will certainly consider these carefully in conference before they are disposed of.”

Last week’s speedy conclusion of the economic growth debate demonstrated the power of congressional procedures in shaping legislative outcomes. Republican control of the conference process allowed the final product to take shape among lawmakers who had one overarching goal in mind — to quickly pass a bill the president could sign. In the end, with the GOP controlling the House, the Senate and the White House, failure to act would have had serious economic and political fallout.

Mr. Schumacher was right — small is beautiful and people do matter. Republicans got the right people in a small room and produced a big legislative win — a process that deserves repetition.

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