On Conference Committees: Three Fallacies Perpetuated During Today’s House Debate

I wanted to take a moment to correct three falsehoods perpetuated during today’s House payroll tax debate.   As you probably know, the (at times heated) debate centered on the use of conference committees to resolve bicameral disputes.  I watched much of the debate and was struck by three reoccurring arguments about conference committees that I believe are patently false.

The first, recited by numerous Republicans, is that conference committees are a part of the U.S. Constitution and/or a kind of Constitutional mechanism for resolving House and Senate differences.  Bill Cassidy (R-LA) repeated this falsehood three times during his one minute (!) floor speech (see here at the 6:00:42 mark).  This one is easy to refute; do a keyword search for “conference” in the Constitution.  It doesn’t exist…anywhere.  Now it is true that conference committees were used in the very first Congress and have been a crucial feature of bicameral bargaining thereafter.  (fun fact: the first conference concerned a disagreement between the House and Senate over how to address the president.  The House “won” and the president was stripped of a “royal” title.  See this excellent 1989 book by Longley and Oleszek).  Now this may sound like hair splitting, but at least three Republicans (including Speaker Boehner) indicated, quite clearly, that conference committees are proscribed by the Constitution to resolve House and Senate disputes.   You would think that Republicans would be better versed on the Constitution after reading it at the start of the 112th Congress (that is unless this reading was for political rather than pedagogical purposes).

The second claim, also cited by Republicans, is that conference committees are somehow “Jeffersonian” or “democratic.”  Dave Camp (R-MI) invoked this claim numerous times by my count.  I see some room for interpretation on this issue, but if we consider the members who typically serve in a conference committee then conference committees are often undemocratic.  Ryan Vander Wielen and Steven Smith have a 2011 paper where they show that in both the House and Senate, conference committees are biased with respect to the membership of the parent chamber.  That is, they are unrepresentative.  Jeffrey Lazarus and Nate Monroe reach a similar conclusion a 2007 paper.  Lazarus and Monroe note that the Speaker has the power to name negotiators in addition to the jurisdictional committee members who typically serve in a conference.  And when the Speaker believes that a conference of jurisdictional managers would produce an unsatisfactory outcome he or she names a slate of pro-majority conferees.  As they summarize it: “the Speaker appoints other conferees in addition to those from the jurisdictional committee, thereby “packing” the delegation in favor of the majority party position” (emphasis in original).

The third falsehood, recited by some Democrats, is that today’s move to conference was somehow procedurally unusual or outside the House’s regular order.  From what I witnessed on C-SPAN, the procedures followed by both sides were fairly standard.  The House passed its version of the payroll tax, the Senate acted second amending the original House passed bill, and the House formally disagreed with the Senate’s version and moved to conference (after a motion to instruct conferees, which is a power exercised by the minority).  The objections raised by Democrats seemed centered on the fact that the House  refused to vote against the Senate bill and instead moved directly to a conference.  But this is how it conference committees are often convened (see for example HR 1540 in this session, the 2012 defense authorization act).  Nothing I observed was unusual in this maneuver (though clearly it’s a smart political move by Republicans that frustrated Democrats).

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3 Responses to On Conference Committees: Three Fallacies Perpetuated During Today’s House Debate

  1. Pingback: Some Quick-hit House Floor Wonkery | Matt Glassman

  2. da verg says:

    yes, it is more of a “precedent” based upon 200 plus years of “following the constitution”. If one should split hairs the Constitution DOES SAY the bill must be PASSED BY BOTH SENATE AND THE HOUSE. The way to do that is BY CONFERENCE. Hence, what you neglected to say is that Harry (the RAT) Reid , who first stated that he would keep Senate as long as needed in session to pass the bill…..immediately left…..after not passing the bill !!! His arrogant tone was that he forgot about the HOUSE process entirely. Or did He? He knows that the bill is NOT passed until BOTH HOUSES pass it. This shows you beyond a shadow of a doubt that the dems are playing politics. OBAMA also ASKED the HOUSE for a year long extension. Now Obama is will to change his mind and sign a bill that doesn’t pass the red face test? This shows a complete lack of leadership, flip flopping, and not following the constitutional process (by calling the Senate back into sesson). Grounds for impeachment? Probably not…..but certainly not showing leadership abilities here.

    • To say that conference committees are the norm in this case obscures important features of bicameral bargaining (and in some respects is flat wrong). Sarah Binder’s post over at The Monkey Cage illustrates the key point: that conference committees have declined markedly over the past thirty years in favor of informal negotiations between House and Senate leaders. And in this case I think Reid followed the normal route, negotiating with his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell (hence why it passed 89-10). Quite simply, this is how the modern Senate operates and I think it shows leadership from both Senate leaders that the payroll tax bill passed as it did. And I would be SHOCKED if Boehner was neither consulted on the Senate negotiations nor knew of the bipartisan bargain. I have no inside knowledge of the negotiations, but the media reports that Boehner was surprised by his conference’s strong opposition to the Senate bill is consistent with the aforementioned narrative. So if anything, I think the Senate followed the norm here.

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