How a Congressional Conference Committee Works

From

House and Senate Work on Compromise Tax Bill

Sometimes, the U.S. Congress needs matchmakers for two to become one. The House of Representatives passed a tax bill on Nov. 16. The Senate passed a different one on Dec. 2. For tax cuts to become law, both the House and Senate need to approve the same bill. The tricky job of marrying the two falls to the members of a conference committee.

1. What’s a conference committee?

It’s a temporary panel of lawmakers from the House and Senate formed to reconcile the differences in the legislation passed by each chamber and negotiate one bill that, they hope, will be acceptable to both.

2. How are the members chosen?

In the House, the Speaker chooses members who supported the bill and, ideally, helped shape it. For the tax bill, that will include members of the Ways and Means and Natural Resources Committees. In the Senate, the same tradition applies, so the majority leader will likely tap members from the Finance and Natural Resources Committees. Each chamber decides on its own how many people to put on the committee, and typically pick an odd number, to avoid tie votes. A majority of each chamber’s committee members must agree on the conference version of the bill, so it doesn’t matter whether there are, say, 11 House members and five Senate members.

3. Are there rules for how the committee works?

Members are not allowed to change the parts of the two bills that are the same. On the differences, they’re supposed to limit the scope of compromise to the two versions in front of them. So if the House voted to pay out $1 billion for some purpose, and the Senate voted $2 billion for it, they could choose either of those amounts, or something in between, but not, say, nothing or $3 billion.

4. So they can’t completely rewrite the bill?

Mostly. Things get complicated when one chamber has proposed a change in a law that wasn’t included in the other chamber’s bill. In weighing the new proposal against existing laws, committee members sometimes compromise on a third way. Both the House and Senate have rules against introducing conference measures that are "entirely irrelevant." In practice, committee members have a pretty good idea of what their leadership and fellow representatives will swallow and what’s needed to forge a compromise that can be agreed to in both chambers. The House and Senate have procedures that allow conferees latitude in reaching agreements. This includes adding material not in the original legislation.

5. How free are members to exert their own views?

Each chamber can instruct its delegates to the conference committee on what type of agreement to seek. But the conferees aren’t bound to follow the instructions.

6. Can I watch the conference committee work?

Though meetings are supposed to be open to the public, conference committees in recent years have held one public meeting and then gone closed doors to do the hard bargaining.

7. What happens after they reach an accord?

A conference report is written along with a description of how each disagreement was resolved. Two copies of the report are signed by majorities of the House and Senate committees, and one copy each is sent to the House and Senate. The chamber that first requested the conference is the first to decide how to act. The first chamber to consider it can decide to send it back to the committee for further work. But once the first chamber agrees to accept the report as written, the second can only accept or reject the report. Once there’s an approved report, the House requires three working days to consider it before voting and the Senate requires 48 hours, though these waiting periods can be waived. 

8. Can the bill be changed before the full House or Senate vote?

No. The bill will be subject to a straight yes-or-no vote in each chamber.

The Reference Shelf

— With assistance by Katherine Rizzo

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