- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Schoolchildren are taught that a bill finally goes to the president after selected lawmakers meet openly to forge a compromise, and the House and Senate approve their accord.

But in today’s Congress, formal conference meetings are rare, the minority party is usually shut out and the public has little or no access to the process.

That trend has been on display this month as Democrats and the White House engage in closed-door talks on how the government is going to change the delivery of health care that have effectively excluded the public and the media.

Dating back to 1789, the House and Senate have dealt with differences in bills by convening conference committees to thrash out a unified approach that the chambers can pass and send to the president. For the past two decades at least, some of these bicameral, bipartisan meetings have been open to C-SPAN cameras.

But in those same two decades, leaders from both parties have held fewer and fewer conference meetings, or reduced their significance to photo ops.

In the 93rd Congress of 1973 to 1975, Congress filed 190 conference reports, the end product of formal House-Senate negotiations. In the session of 2005 to 2007, the last time Republicans controlled both chambers, that number had fallen to 28. Last year, the first year of the current congressional session, there were only 11 conference reports.

Of those 11, eight were annual appropriations bills or the budget bill, measures that lend themselves to the conference committee process because House-Senate differences on spending levels can be resolved by splitting the difference.

Conferees did meet briefly in February on the $787 billion economic stimulus package, but only after the White House and Democratic leaders had reached agreement on the key issues. A few speeches were made, and the meeting was abruptly adjourned, never to be reconvened after Republicans asked when the negotiating might begin.

Other major bills sent to the president last year — a credit-card-holder bill of rights, a women’s fair-pay bill, a smoking-regulation bill and a war- spending bill — were completed without open conference meetings.

Instead, leaders of the two chambers either worked out a deal in which one chamber would accept the other’s version, or took a “pingpong” approach where each chamber would modify its bill and send it back across the Capitol for another vote until the two sides agreed.

Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said the demise of the conference meeting has coincided with the rise of partisanship, and the health care bill is a perfect example; there’s no motivation to convene a bipartisan conference when every minority member opposes it. Another factor is a shift in power from House and Senate committee chairmen to party leaders.

Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker said one aspect of sunshine laws that have opened Congress to closer scrutiny by the public and by special interests is that leaders often have to do their deal making in private if they want to accomplish anything.

“Anything that touches on explosive issues generally has to be decided at the leadership level and out of the public gaze,” he said.

Still, shutting down House-Senate conference meetings riles those in the minority excluded from the process.

In a letter to C-SPAN Chairman Brian Lamb, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner wrote, “Unfortunately, the president, Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader [Harry] Reid now intend to shut out the American people at the most critical hour by skipping a bipartisan conference committee and hammering out a final health care bill in secret.”

The complaint sounded a lot like one nine years ago, when Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said Republicans “locked out the Democrats from the conference committee” meeting on the budget. “We were invited to the first meeting and told we would not be invited back, that the Republican majority was going to write this budget all on their own, which they have done. So much for bipartisanship.”

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