The Alan Katz Health Care Reform Blog

Health Care Reform From One Person's Perspective

Bypassing Health Care Reform Conference Committee Comes at a Cost

Posted by Alan on January 8, 2010


With the political decision made to skip a conference committee and use another, faster Congressional procedure, health care reform is moving along quickly. Congressional leaders, their staffs, and members of the Obama Administration have spent hours considering the differences between the versions of reform passed by the House and the Senate. According to Reuters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is claiming “Democrats were close to agreement … but still faced challenges in blending the two approaches.”

The streamlined approach being taken by Legislative leaders bypasses the more common approach to blending differing House and Senate bills: the conference committee. Instead of convening a group of Democrats and Republicans to hash out a single bill, the so-called “ping-pong” approach leaves negotiating a compromise in the hands of Legislative leaders (and/or their designees). While far less

The problem Democratic leaders have with the conference committee approach is the many opportunities it provides Republicans to score political points and delay the process – a political strategy GOP leaders have pledged to pursue. By using a procedure known as “messages between the Houses,” however, Democratic leaders can thwart the Republican strategy of delay. However, the procedural victory trades one set of political headaches for another. Republicans will claim that Democrats are ramming through partisan reforms without listening to the people (with “people” being defined as those who agree with the GOP and/or disagree with the Democrats). In that polls show a majority of Americans oppose a description of the Democratic health care reforms, that’s a lot of people.

Blogger Keith Hennessey does a great job of explaining the messages between the Houses procedure and the mechanics are pretty straightforward. Put simply: the Senate bill will be brought up on the floor of the House, considers and passes amendments on a majority vote. (The assumption being that Speaker Pelosi will only bring to the floor a version of the health care reform legislation she knows can pass). The legislation returns to the Senate where the amended version will be voted upon. Assuming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can keep his 60 votes together to end the expected Republican filibuster, the Senate then votes on the bill. With both chambers having passed identical bills, the legislation is sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

In a conference committee, Republicans are in the room. So are other lawmakers the legislative leaders believe are necessary to work through controversial issues or who can help deliver the needed votes. The reality is that Republicans have already stated their position in absolute terms: they oppose the bill and will do everything in their power to defeat it. This is not the kind of negotiating posture that gets one invited to too many parties. So in one sense the Democrats are simply acknowledging reality: Republicans don’t want to talk about compromises, they want to kill the bill. Instead of having GOP lawmakers watch Democrats talk about reform, the Democrats will simply talk among themselves and those they feel need to be included to build the required majorities.

Bypassing Republicans undermines the pledges then Senator Obama made during the presidential campaign to make laws in a transparent, bi-partisan manner. Closed doors, by definition, are not transparent. And the resulting legislation is unlikely to garner a single Republican vote. Both of these outcomes are negative for Democrats. However, they seem to have made the political calculation that: 1) the harm from failing to pass health care reform is far greater; and 2) few will remember, and fewer will care about, the process once health care reform is signed into law. They may be right.

The reality is the legislation emerging from the ping pong procedure is highly likely to be the same as what would have emerged from the conference committee process. The debate over how the legislation is written will be noisy, but in the long run it is of secondary importance. What really matters is what health care reform does.

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One Response to “Bypassing Health Care Reform Conference Committee Comes at a Cost”

  1. John Eley said

    This entry fails to address one of the major benefits of having this accomplished through a conference committee. Simply put such a committee normally issues a report explaining what it has done and why. This becomes a key resource in the implementation process when responsible and impacted groups and individuals have to interpret and understand Congressional intent. This adds another element of ambiguity in an already too confused legislative process.

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