Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Finishing the Bill

Once a bill has passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, the proposed bill often exists in two forms. In order for the bill to be passed to the President to be signed into law, the two houses must bring their two respective bills into a single cohesive final product. In order to accomplish this, the two houses often use a Conference Committee. This process takes several steps: the houses agree to go to committee, the various leaders appoint members to the committee, and finally the Conference Committee meets and creates the final proposal of the joint bill.

When the Congress has approved the different versions the two houses send communication to each other and with amendments to the proposed bills. This process of sending amendments back and forth between the houses has come to be known as “ping-ponging”(Sinclair, 90). This process sometimes results in the compromise of one house accepting the other’s amendments, when this fails however a member in each house must make a motion to go to conference. On October 20, 2011, the Senate, as voiced by Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV), motioned to not concede to any amendments proposed by the House, and to instead vote to move to conference:
“ that when the Senate receives a message from the House with respect to H.R. 2112, the Senate insist on its amendment, request, or agree to, a conference with the House on the disagreeing votes of the two Houses; and the Chair be authorized to appoint the following conferees: Kohl, Harkin, Feinstein, Johnson of South Dakota, Nelson of Nebraska, Pryor, Brown of Ohio, Inouye, Murray, Mikulski, Blunt, Cochran, McConnell, Collins, Moran, Hoeven, Hutchison, and Shelby”
In the Senate, this motion to go to conference is actually a three part motion. Usually these motions pass together and without discussion, however, all three of these motions are available for debate, and a determined opponent to a bill going to conference can filibuster and prevent the efforts from going forward (Oleszek, 305).

When a bill has ping-ponged several times the language regarding these motions can become convoluted and even confusing, for instance in 2008, a motion to go to conference was made where the Senate “Agreed to the motion to concur in House amendment to Senate amendment to House amendments to Senate amendment to the [housing reform] bill.” (Sinclair, 90) The consolidation of a bill from its form in the two houses to one bill can be accomplished through a number of means, but often it is through the Conference process. This process begins when one house offers to go to conference and the other accepts.

The duty of appointing members to the Conference Committee falls upon the Speaker in the House of Representatives, and upon the presiding officer in the Senate. These nominations usually come from the chair and ranking minority member of the committee which originally considered and reported the bill (Oleszek, 307). In the House, rules exist for whom the Speaker may appoint, “no less than a majority [of conferees] who generally supported the House position as determined by the Speaker,” and “who are primarily responsible for the legislation.”(Oleszek, 308) Recently, in the House, the number of delegates appointed to Conferences has increased. Because of this increase, Speakers such as former Speaker Hastert limited the number of delegates they appointed to Conferences. For members of committee’s who had a jurisdictional claim to the bill would have three members appointed, with two members from the majority party and one from the minority (Sinclair, 93). This policy change represents a departure from precedent. In the Senate, by tradition the appointment of members to conference has been bipartisan, and the ratio of majority to minority members roughly reflects the same ratio of the Senate.

In the motion put forward by Senate Majority Leader Reid, of the conferees nominated eight are Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee, while ten are Democrats of the same committee. The Speaker of the House has additional powers concerning the appointment of conferees. Once the appointment has been made, the Speaker may remove or appoint new conferees to the Conference. Finally while members may not be named as conferees, sometimes members of Congress are invited to attend the bicameral meetings in order to provide expertise that they may posses. When the outcome of a bill is of particular importance to Congressional leaders, it is not unheard of for these leaders to name themselves as conferees. For example, it is not uncommon for the House Majority leader to serve on important tax conferences (Oleszek, 309). The House also has the practice of appointing “general” and “limited” conferees. The general conferees are given the authority to debate and construct the entirety of the agreement between House and Senate, while the limited conferees are restricted to their areas of jurisdiction based upon the committees serve on (Oleszek, 310). Conferees are chosen by their House’s leadership, and are generally chosen from the committee’s with jurisdiction over the bill. The House is more restrictive with their conferees and at times only grants certain powers to their delegates.

The Conference then meets. The House and Senate are allowed to issue mandates to their conferees.

This process occurs before conferees are appointed, however the affect does not occur until the Conference actually meets. While these guidelines are taken seriously, the conferees are under no actual obligation to obey them. These instructions do however place additional pressure on the conferees to toe the party line or to uphold their House’s particular stand on the bills in question (Oleszek, 312) Conferees are also not limited on only eliminating items existing in the passed bills, they also may add new items. When motioning to instruct conferees on H.R. 2112, Representative Dicks (D-WA) instructed:
“The motion instructs conferees to provide funds needed for the Federal Highway Administration to eliminate the backlog of repairs to highways, roads and bridges damaged in natural disasters. The motion also instructs the conferees to fund the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) programs. … The motion also instructs the conferees to support the highest level of funding for COPS within the scope of conference. The House bill, as reported by the Appropriations Committee back in July, included no funding for the COPS programs. However, the Budget Control Act provides a higher discretionary funding total for FY 2012 than the allocation the committee was working with during the summer. “
The selected conferees meet in open meetings, though this was not always the case. Today, the pressures of outside influences often lead to stalemates and deadlocks so closed doors meetings are sometimes used to finish deals. These closed door meetings also allow for conferees to back off of contentious parts of the bill while still being able to save face in front of their constituents or other supporters. Another way that conferees save face while still advancing their agendas is begins in the various houses themselves. This can be accomplished by including lines and sections in the proposed bill that one house feels willing to give up in order to gain something they want in return (Sinclair, 104). The Congressional Conferees receive instruction yet the implications of those instructions may sometimes be ignored. Further the discussion and compromise happens both in and out of open sessions.
The process of bringing two separate bills together into one on which both the House and the Senate can agree to pass is a difficult and often difficult one. Restrictions in the Senate and its ability to be stalled by filibuster, as well as the difficulties posed by the number of conferees often selected by the House of Representatives and the detrimental effect on finding a consensus that creates often hinder the ability of Conferences to work. In the end, the importance of the bill to Congressional leaders, the similarity of the two bills, and the flexibility of the delegates involved can lead to easy deliberation, and favorfull outcomes.

Works Cited
Oleszek, Walter J. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process. Washington, D.C.: CQ, 2011. Print

Sinclair, Barbara. Unorthodox Lawmaking: New Legislative Processes in the U.S. Congress. Washington, D.C.: CQ, 2007. Print.

Fiscal Year 2012 Combined Federal Spending Legislation, Part 1. C-Span. 3 Nov. 2011. C-Span Video Library. Web. 24 Nov. 2011. .

House Session. C-Span. 3 Nov. 2011. C-Span Video Library. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. spanvideo.org/program/HouseSession5276>.

House Session. C-Span. 3 Nov. 2011. C-Span Video Library. Web. 24 Nov. 2011. spanvideo.org/program/HouseSession5276>.

Senate Session. C-Span. 20 Oct. 2011. C-Span Video Library. Web. 24 Nov. 2011. spanvideo.org/program/SenateSession4942>.