- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Last week’s tax fight in Congress was about many things — Social Security taxes, unemployment benefits and an oil pipeline — but House Republicans tried to make it into an even bigger fight over the institutional relevance of the House of Representatives itself.

In the end, they won a partial victory. House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, caved in to Senate demands and approved the upper chamber’s two-month tax-cut bill. In exchange, the Senate agreed to name negotiators for a conference committee to hash out a longer-term solution.

It will be the fifth bill to be sent through the conference committee this Congress, putting lawmakers on pace for the worst performance in modern history and underscoring how much has changed in Washington, where conference committees used to be standard.

Like most of the other major deals struck over the past decade, the two-month tax-cut agreement was written by the Senate — in this case by Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Mr. Boehner initially blessed the deal, but his caucus argued that a two-month cut was bad policy and demanded that the House have a role in writing the final deal.

Senator Reid is not king. He can’t tell us what to do here,” House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, California Republican, said as his committee wrote the floor procedures that sought to force a conference committee.

Mr. Reid, though, refused to enter into negotiations until the House took away the end-of-year deadline for the tax cut’s expiration.

“Once the House passes the Senate’s bipartisan compromise to hold middle-class families harmless while we work out our differences, I will be happy to restart the negotiating process to forge a yearlong extension,” Mr. Reid said as the brinkmanship intensified.

When Mr. McConnell, the top Senate Republican, announced he was backing Mr. Reid, the House GOP blinked.

Now, with the immediate fight over, both sides are preparing for the conference, which will have to reach an agreement by the end of February if it is to prevent the payroll tax from rising again.

Mr. Reid announced Friday the members he would appoint to the conference committee and told reporters that they would be free to open any discussion, including raising taxes on millionaires, which Democrats tried but dismissed as they negotiated throughout December.

“I have instructed, in my telephone calls with my four senators, there is nothing off the table. Everything’s on the table,” Mr. Reid said.

Mr. Reid was able to fend off the House because both chambers must agree on conference committees and then must appoint negotiators. They are supposed to hold at least one public meeting to air out the issues, and majorities of each chamber’s negotiators must approve of a deal for it to be submitted to the House and Senate for votes.

The concept has grown rusty, though.

Along with the latest bill, four others from each chamber have been sent to conference this year. The 97th Congress in 1981 and 1982 sent 94 bills to conference, and the 102nd Congress 20 years ago sent 90 into negotiations.

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.

Over the past decade, as the minority party in the Senate has made increasing use of the filibuster, the House has been under enormous pressure to accept whatever deal comes out of the upper chamber.

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.

“Very frankly, Democrats are no different than Republicans in the sense that, in the House of Representatives, sometimes the Senate presents you with alternatives that you don’t like,” he said.

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.

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