How to get House and Senate bills to match up on payroll tax cut?

A conference committee on the payroll tax cut meets Wednesday to try to resolve differences between House and Senate bills. It's the old-fashioned way of coming to agreement, used for barely half the bills in the last Congress. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana speaks during a meeting of the Payroll Tax Conference Committee, Wednesday, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Here are some things that have become obsolete in the time we’ve covered Washington: rotary telephones, wide lapels, typewriters, and congressional conference committees.

OK, maybe conference committees haven't exactly gone the way of the four-speed Pinto. There's a big one meeting Feb. 1, in fact: a congressional conference committee appointed to try to get past the impasse over extending the payroll tax cut. But this method of resolving House and Senate differences over important pieces of legislation is much less common than it used to be. It may still be a part of every Government 101 lecture on “How Bills Become Law,” but in today’s fractured Congress, leaders often turn to easier methods.

Do we need a little Gov 101, too? Often, the House and Senate pass different versions of big stuff (such as President Obama’s health-care reform). The speaker and majority leaders then appoint lawmakers to a conference committee split between Republicans and Democrats in rough proportion to their electoral strength.

These folks then get together in a room in the Capitol and horse-trade until they’ve got a deal. Then both chambers vote on it, and voilà, you’ve got a 98 on your Gov 101 final.

For many years, about 95 percent of bills that had House and Senate versions were finished off this way. But by the Congress that ended in 2010, only about 58 percent of House-Senate differences over impending laws were settled via conference, according to Congressional Research Service numbers. 

So when Speaker John Boehner in late December called for a conference committee to resolve differences over the payroll tax-cut bill, the Senate reacted as if he were asking to communicate via Teletype, or some other old-fashioned technology.

Why the decline in conference committees? Trends in partisanship, of course. Minority parties are more inclined to try to throw sand in the legislative gears, and the formal structure of a conference makes that fairly easy. So majority parties are apt to ignore them completely and just send amendments back and forth until House and Senate versions of a bill are identical.

This is called the “ping-pong” method of bicameral relations, for obvious reasons. It’s not in the Constitution. But neither are conference committees. We think the press gallery still has some rotary phones, though: Things change pretty slowly up there.

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