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Sunday, June 4, 2006
PoliColumn II (Conference Committee Politics)
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 7:37 am

From today’s Birmingham News:

Senate, House immigration bills on collision course
Sunday, June 04, 2006

The U.S. Senate has passed an immigration bill that will be set on a collision course with a radically different bill passed by the House. The result will be that the enforcement-focused House bill will have to be reconciled to the more immigrant-friendly Senate version in a conference committee. The job of the committee will be to reconcile the two bills for an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate.

It is a process we all should have learned in high school and probably think of as a perfectly natural, acceptable part of how a bill becomes a law.

However, this topic, with its radically different House and Senate versions, is something of a poster child for the question of whether this whole conference committee idea is an especially good one.

`Not fixable’:

As Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions said, “It will have to be rewritten. The bill is not fixable.”

If that is the case, then really the conference won’t be simply hammering out some language differences that inevitably emerge in legislation passed by two different bodies. Rather, for all practical purposes, the conference will act as third chamber of the legislature and, essentially, craft a whole new piece of legislation that will be immune to change by the full Congress.

This begs the question: What was the point of all the wailing and gnashing of teeth we’ve gone through of late? Why go through all the drama in the House and the Senate on such a controversial (and important) topic? The conference committee has, at the end of the day, an inordinate amount of power - especially when the House and Senate bills are so different.

Some reflection on this fact ought to cause some discomfort among us about this process, as we consider the diminution of the influence of the voter in this system. In a conference committee, the relative political power of the citizen is diminished, as each state (let alone district) is not represented. Indeed, the conferees are hand-picked by congressional leadership in the hopes of steering the final legislative product in a particular direction.

Further, the conference debate is far less transparent than that which takes place in the House or Senate, to put it mildly. Really, we don’t know what goes on in the conference until it has produced its report. The entire process substantially reduces accountability.

It also dilutes the power of the full chambers - for while the conference is a creature of the overall Congress, it is also very much a creature of the leadership, and therefore weakens the influence of the two bodies as a whole.

Yes, ultimately that power is partially restored with the two chambers having an up-or-down vote on the conference report. However, at that time there is no room for amendment nor, therefore, any serious debate. It is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Given that the normal legislative process is one of significant give and take and debate, this is a fairly substantial change in process (and therefore potentially in outcome).

Given that all of the previous work in both chambers can be jettisoned, that the conferees are selected in a way which mightily dilutes the influence of voters and that the conference report itself may bear little resemblance to the work which came before, one has to wonder whether we should be using the process at all.

So, what’s the alternative? It is actually pretty simple, and is a process Congress does use for less controversial matters: The bill should go back and forth between the two chambers until both can agree on identical content. There should be the possibility for full debate, amendment and true legislative give-and-take (and compromise) between the two chambers.

Would it take longer? Yes, it would - and, quite frankly, that shouldn’t be an issue. For one thing, it is the job of the legislature to legislate, and it should take as long as necessary to get it right. And, in a democracy, the debate should be as out in the open as possible and the peoples’ elected representative should have their full influence. Further, it might mean fewer laws are passed in a given session of Congress - and given all the laws we currently have, a few less can’t possibly be a bad thing.

If in the back-and-forth process we find no reconciliation can be reached, so be it: That means we don’t have sufficient consensus to pass that law anyway.

Toss the conference:

So, let’s chuck the conference process and go to a system of going back and forth from chamber to chamber. Of course, since such a process would dilute the power of the leadership, this is an unlikely scenario - not to mention we are pretty conservative about our procedures. (If we’ve always done it that way, it must be good, right?)

In regards to the current immigration debate, the only way this process may actually result in an adequately democratic (note the small “d”) outcome is if the conference is unable to reach an adequate compromise, thus killing the bill for this session.


  1. Conference calls

    Whatever you think about the immigration bills from the House and the Senate, Stephen Taylor makes an important point about conference committees.
    …Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions said, “It will have to be rewritten. The bill is not fixable.”

    Trackback by blogs for industry — Sunday, June 4, 2006 @ 6:31 pm

  2. […] polls on this topic one will find a genuine lack of consensus on those details. As such, as I stated in a column a few weeks back, the most democratic outcome here is likely what will get: no bill […]

    Pingback by PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Immigration Bill Dead — Wednesday, June 21, 2006 @ 8:36 am

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