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Wonkology: Conference Committee

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November 7, 2013

Noun

What is it?

A meeting of House and Senate members to negotiate differences between similar bills that have passed each chamber. Like regular order, the process has generally fallen out of favor because Congressional leaders have instead chosen to "ping-pong" legislation between the two chambers to resolve differences. However, two important conference committees are presently underway on Capitol Hill.

Two houses, both alike in dignity

Either chamber can request a conference by majority vote after both the House and Senate have passed a piece of similar - but not identical - legislation (depending on the circumstances, a cloture motion requiring 60 votes may be needed in the Senate). House and Senate leaders then appoint conferees, most often from the relevant committee(s) of jurisdiction. Conferees reflect the party balance of the respective chamber, and the number of conferees does not need to be the same from the House and Senate.

Negotiations are typically limited in scope to resolving differences in the legislation, although extraneous language may be considered depending on that conference committee’s particular rules. Any agreement reached in a conference committee must be signed by a majority of conferees from both the House and Senate, which prevents one chamber from overruling the other. The newly agreed-upon bill is then considered and voted on by both chambers, cannot be amended, and is subject to points of order. Following passage, Congress sends the final legislation to the President for his approval or veto.

Why is it important now?

Although each chamber passed its own budget resolution earlier this year, the full Congress must approve one budget in order to establish 2014 budgetary levels. Budget resolutions, if approved by both chambers, interestingly do not require Presidential signature into law because they become the guideline for future appropriations bills, which themselves do require the President’s signature in order to be enacted. As a result of Congress’s agreement on October 16 to reopen the government, a conference committee must reach a budget agreement by December 13. Republicans had previously rejected going to conference on the budget based on a number of concerns, including worries that Democrats would push for new revenues. Despite those objections, Republicans later appointed conferees to get Democrats to the table during the shutdown.

Last week, Congress kicked off this budget conference committee which is co-chaired by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), each the chair of the budget panel in their chamber. If this conference committee does not reach an agreement, we could see another government shutdown in mid-January when the current continuing resolution expires. A separate conference committee has begun consideration of the massive, far-reaching Farm Bill.