- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

These are lonely days for some on Capitol Hill. With most of the major legislation passed, high- profile congressional hearings concluded and lots of non-controversial “filler” legislation on the floor, lethargy replaces lawmaking as Congress lurches toward adjournment for the year.

Yet for others, these are frenetic times. Lawmakers participating in the arcane process of resolving differences between the House and the Senate have plenty to keep them occupied on these chilly autumn nights. They participate in one of the least understood but absolutely critical parts of the legislative process — congressional conference committees.

Conference committees have been in the news a lot lately. House and Senate negotiators slog through arduous talks, trying to produce final legislative products on issues ranging from Medicare prescription drugs and energy policy to next year’s spending bills. Certain Democrats and the media — alleging that the process is clandestine and exclusive — inveigh against conference committee deliberations, but these charges are not new. Conference committees have been misunderstood and called overly secretive for many years. Despite these concerns, Republicans should continue to use the conference process to advance their legislative agenda on an even broader set of issues.

This method of resolving House-Senate differences has been around for a long time. “The conference committee process is older than the Congress itself,” says congressional expert Walter Oleczek. “State legislatures used conference committees before 1789 to reconcile differences between the chambers in their bicameral legislatures.”

The conference committee is an antidote to obstructionism. In a polarized environment, moving the lawmaking process into a place where partisan grandstanding and procedural shenanigans by the minority party are minimized is the best way to achieve results. That is why on major legislation with national political implications, party leaders increasingly play a major role in conference deliberations. “On the really high-visibility bills of a Congress, members now expect leadership involvement in settling inter-chamber differences,” says UCLA political scientist Barbara Sinclair. On major pieces of legislation this year, such as the Medicare bill, lawmakers appointed members of the leadership to serve as conferees.

Yet, in today’s increasingly partisan and polarized environment, this process is probably more necessary than ever to move the legislative process forward.

The unique way Congress treats these final products of the legislative process is the reason why. When conferees finish their work, they present a single legislative product for House and Senate approval before it is sent to the president for signature. No amendments, debate is limited and the whole package is subject to an up or down — take it or leave it — vote. Sometimes that’s what it takes to get lawmakers to make difficult choices.

Conference committees have a strong track record of legislative success. For example, conference reports are rarely defeated in the House or Senate. And, in the case of the Senate Finance Committee —which generates the bulk of health, tax and trade legislation — no conference report brought to the Senate floor from that committee has ever been defeated.

Despite an enviable success rate, the conference committee is not a rubber stamp for a particular party’s partisan agenda. Medicare, energy and spending legislation have witnessed their share of recent intra-party jousting among Republicans. But once negotiations are complete, the conference committee is a powerful procedural tool to complete the process.

Notwithstanding the differences between the chambers this year, the main negotiators from the House and Senate are from the same party, and that usually helps advance the process. “Having a Republican chairman from the Senate looking a Republican chairman from the House in the eye during conference negotiations makes a huge difference,” one GOP leadership aide said. Last year, when the Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans held the House, the conference committee was a less effective legislative tool.

But this year, things are different. Republican control of conference committees will probably mean Congress completes final action on major bills like Medicare and energy policy. It is so effective that many legislative strategists feel the “just get to conference” strategy should be used even more frequently on issues currently snagged in the Senate. Sometimes, that might mean passing significantly different legislation in the two bodies — then Republicans could craft a final product difficult to reject. On issues critical to the party’s agenda, like class action reform, medical malpractice and welfare policy reauthorization, this is a tactic worth utilizing. The “conference call” is a strategic procedural tool that should be deployed more often — the “loneliness” it inflicts on Capitol Hill notwithstanding.

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