Has gone to work on the deficit...

A CONFERENCE COMMITTEE

July 19, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

A CONFERENCE COMMITTEE has gone to work on the deficit reduction plan, which was passed in different versions by House and Senate.

The way this works is this: After each chamber has passed its version of a bill, several senators and representatives get together to work out the differences. In this case "several" is 152 representatives and 58 senators. That's 40 percent of Congress. Most conferences are much smaller, but in 1981 there were 250 conferees on the budget resolution.

Some textbooks suggest that all conference committees do is split the difference. The House wants a billion dollars for Program X and the Senate wants two billion. So the conference writes a bill that gives Program X $1.5 billion. It often works just that way, but sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes Program X will get $1.7 or $1.1 -- and sometimes, even though the congressional rules seem to forbid it, Program X will get nothing or $3 billion.

One famous example of how conferees (technically they're "managers") definitely did not split the difference came in 1980 in the conference dealing with bank and savings and loan deregulation. Federal deposit insurance at the time was limited to $40,000. The full House had decided to leave it at that. But the full Senate voted to raise it to $50,000. You might expect that the conference would go for $40,000 or $45,000 or $50,000, but at the urging of Rep. Fernand St Germain of Rhode Island the

conference set it at $100,000, which became law.

(Aftermath: St Germain, tainted by revelations of unethical conduct, was defeated at the polls. And you know how the reform helped the savings and loan industry.)

Conference committees also are not suppose to rewrite sections of legislation that are identical in both House and Senate versions, but there are ways around that, too. Sometimes the second chamber to consider a bill before it goes to conference will change otherwise identical language by a word or a single dollar in anticipation of completely rewriting the section in conference.

Conferences are not supposed to put completely new stuff into legislation, but sometimes that happens, too. At least once in recent years substantive new language was written into law in a conference committee -- by unknown persons. That is, no conferee was aware the change was inserted into the law. It was said later that a staff aide was responsible. The butler did it?

This can happen because normally much less public attention is focused on conferences than debates and votes on the floor of House and Senate. Conferences used to be secret sessions. Since the mid 1970s, they have been open, but conferees can vote to close them briefly -- and even without that many formal decisions are made in informal and non-public meetings.

Over half a century ago a senator introduced a resolution providing that all legislation be introduced "and without debate referred to conference." He was joking. Or was he?

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