Thursday, February 11, 2010

Savoring the Conference Process

Needless to say, the legislative process can be a complex sight to behold. The ongoing ruckus over Congress' handling of the Obama health care package provides the perfect context for a discussion of my favorite part of the legislative process – the maze known as conference. By definition, conference happens after the two chambers in a bicameral legislature each pass a bill that is in conflict with the other and the differing bills must be reconciled before joint passage of a "conference" report. Put another way, conference is where the tastiest sausage is made.

Here is how it works. One chamber requests a conference or agrees to the other chamber's request for a conference. Conferees are appointed and the other house is informed of the action by a "message" -- a formal communication between the chambers. After the second chamber agrees to go to conference, it appoints conferees and likewise sends a message back. Either chamber may appoint any number of conferees. No matter the number, the conferees must act as one.

Next come the dicing and slicing of deliberations, with review by the conferees of the differences between the respective bills. The scope of the "matters" in conference is the crux of the matter (pun intended). Germaneness becomes a key question. Conferees are supposed to attend to only the matters in the legislation that are in disagreement. Conferees are not supposed to insert new matters or drop matters in agreement. A parliamentary point of order may lie against the conference report if conferees overstep their authority by going too far beyond reconciling the differences. In the real world sausage making process, however, conferees have some latitude towards the end that the entire controversy may be successfully resolved to the satisfaction of both chambers.

Conferees confronted with an amendment (or a series of amendments) are under more procedural constraints than conferees handling a bill passed by the other chamber via a committee substitute. If the differences are in the form of conflicting amendments (rather than conflicting committee substitutes), the conferees may recommend that (i) one chamber recede from all or some of its amendments, (ii) the other chamber recede from its disagreement to all or some of the amendments and agree; or, (iii)  the conference committee report a failure to agree either in all or in part.

In the end, if the conferees reach an agreement on the disputed subject, the conference committee reports to each house and the two houses vote on the text of the recommended agreement. If either house rejects the conference committee's recommendation, new members to the conference committee may be appointed to try again, otherwise, the bill is dead. Long live the conference process. 

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