When conference committees fade, democracy suffers

Filed under: Opinion |

In the official record, you’ll find that the economic stimulus package passed by Congress was drawn up by a conference committee — a bipartisan group of House members and senators who sat down together to wrangle over its fine print.

In truth, nothing like this took place.

To be sure, a conference committee met, as is supposed to happen when legislation passed by the House differs from the version passed by the Senate. But it was more for show than for actual debate and deliberation.

Instead, like much legislation during the last decade and a half, the final version of the stimulus bill was pieced together behind closed doors by a handful of lawmakers. Then it was put to a vote before their colleagues could conceivably read the whole thing, let alone digest its implications.

As Slate magazine’s John Dickerson put it, “the stimulus deal was so opaque even the people negotiating it weren’t in on what was in it.”

This might be par for the course in Washington now, but it’s hard to argue our democracy has benefited as a result. Of all the various procedures developed by a maturing Congress during the last couple of centuries, conference committees were once seen as perhaps the most important step in passing legislation.

They were where House members and senators, Democrats and Republicans, all came together to draft final language, strike compromises, deliberate face to face, and reach agreement about all aspects of a bill before sending a measure to the president.

In essence, they were where the very idea of representative democracy was put into practice, bringing regions, interests, ideologies and attitudes toward legislating together in one room so they could find common ground.

But the conference committee appears to be dying.

As Congressional Quarterly reported during January, there were 62 conference committees in 1993-94, and only 10 in 2007-08. Measures last year to reform electronic surveillance policy, bail out the finance industry, deal with the nation’s foreclosure crisis and fund the federal government all passed without a regular conference committee.

Instead, about 80 percent of laws now are made by one chamber of Congress simply adopting the version passed by the other. Others are so tightly controlled by the leadership that — as with the stimulus package — they’re the result of a conference in name only.

Because bills that come out of conference can only receive an up or down vote on the floor — there is no chance for amendment — this puts considerable power into the hands of the majority leadership. Especially when, as has happened from time to time, the majority leadership neglects to tell the minority that a conference committee is even meeting.

This certainly makes for expeditious legislating, but at the cost of deliberation, bicameralism, transparency and basic fairness. It means that debate and compromise get short-circuited. It means that the approaches unique to each chamber — the Senate’s tradition of careful rumination, the House’s tendency to reflect the urgencies of the moment — have no chance to be balanced against one another.

It means that it is almost impossible for ordinary lawmakers, let alone the general public, to understand how a measure was put together and what’s in it. And it means that most members, especially if they are in the minority party, get cut out of the process.

This trend is not just bad news for the basic values Congress is supposed to represent, it damages Congress’ performance as well. Members learn a great deal about the art of legislating in a well-run conference committee. They have to bargain, accommodate one another’s needs, listen carefully to arguments, try different approaches, search for consensus, reconcile differences.

In a sense, conference committees offer the chance to hone the political arts and values that democracy requests of its elected officials.

By the same token, the move to bypass conference committees has allowed negotiations and the crafting of bills to take place solely within the majority party, under the auspices of the House speaker and the Senate majority leader. The result has been legislation that tends to be less comprehensive, less accommodating to the legitimate concerns of the other side, more partisan and more irritating to those excluded from the process.

A major reason for the frustration of legislators is that they feel left out of this decision-making process.

When rank-and-file members of Congress press for a return to “the regular order,” they are talking in part about restoring the conference committee to its rightful place. And that is because they recognize that the institution they serve — and the Americans they represent — are being harmed by the leadership’s willingness to sidestep the conference tradition in the name of power and convenience.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.