Unless House Changes Course, Conference Committee Can't Save Transportation Bill


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I should have focused on the conference committees as the third House of Congress [in the political science classes I taught], because these folks can do any number of different things...It [conference committee] is, I think, the least accountable part of decisionmaking in Congress.

- Former Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone, quoted in Walter Oleszek's Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process

There's been a drumbeat of late, urging House and Senate Committees to just "get to conference" with their respective versions of the bill. As I've written about, the Chamber of Commerce has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars saying so, and I see now that another blog has echoed the claim. "Conference," for D.C. outsiders, is the process of synthesizing House and Senate bills for renewed passage as a compromise through both chambers before going to the President's desk.

However, as I’ve written before these two bills are fundamentally irreconcilable. The sections on environmental reviews, for starters, are starkly different. The House bill would rely on speculative revenue from new oil drilling and elimination of guaranteed public transportation funding, as opposed to the Senate bill which cobbles together modest changes to the tax code in order to make ends meet. The House bill would slash funding for Amtrak, for trails benefiting those of us who walk or bike, and undermine a major fund for air quality improvement by making it a plain old highway program.

The Senate bill does not take these extreme steps, and in fact sponsors and staff are working hard to improve it by sifting through scores of amendments germane to the transportation debate and adding sensible ones. Unfortunately it also faces several controversial and irrelevant proposals, with a key vote slated for tomorrow on whether or not to set these aside and proceed with the bipartisan transportation bill.

The good news is that Speaker Boehner has announced that House Leadership will rewrite their bill so that among other things it will be reduced in scope (from 4.5 years to a shorter time frame) and changed so that public transportation retains its funding. The bad news could also be that Leadership will rewrite the bill, which was already very political (no Democrats voted to report it out of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is very rare for a transportation bill), amounting to what one lobbyist called a “big wet kiss for conservatives.” Will divisive politics also trump good policy in the new bill?

If so, a conference committee would face an impossibly Herculean task. Conference committees for bills like this one are huge, with dozens of appointees (the House taps many more than the Senate, which makes sense since that chamber is more than four times as heavily populated with representatives). And there is ample evidence that conference committees are stacked in partisan ways, as cited here and in a recent, impressive doctoral thesis by a Duke University student (see especially the graphs on page 37). This would probably be a typical conference committee, with “the rules, precedents and customs of each chamber obligat[ing] conferees to try and uphold the position of their chamber.”(quoting Walter Oleszek’s masterful guide to Congressional procedure)

The only way a conference committee can possibly succeed in hammering out a good agreement is if the current, kryptonite-like terrible House bill is rewritten so that it is genuinely balanced and bipartisan.