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Skipping Conference Committee: What Does It Mean?

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Earlier today, Jonathan Cohn broke the news that House and Senate Democrats are "almost certainly" going to bypass the official conference committee process to pass the health care reform bill. The reasoning given by Democrats is that going to conference allows Republicans with multiple opportunities to block or delay the bill's ultimate passage. David Waldman gives a great run-down of the rules that would allow for further delay. The move to conference would require multiple Senate votes on moving to conference and appointing conferees, all processes that are subject to cloture votes (60 votes) and require 30 hours of debate. Skipping conference eliminates these cloture votes and requires lawmakers to only cast votes on the final passage of the bill. While providing the speedier passage of the bill, skipping conference presents some transparency-related problems.

Recently adopted and long standing House and Senate rules require conference committees to be generally open to the public. Both House and Senate rules require that all conference committee meetings be open to the public unless a majority of conferees votes in open session to close the meetings. Senate rules require all conference committee reports be publicly available for at least 48 hours prior to a final vote. Without conference, there is no mechanism to provide for openness in the final discussions regarding the health care bill.

Other conference rules provide for openness within the conference committee rather than public openness. These provisions require that conference committees not exclude conferees from decisions or refuse them the ability to see documents or participate in meetings. It will be much easier to exclude potentially difficult members (coming from both the left and right) without a formal conference.

The forgoing of formal conference isn't entirely uncommon -- and, in the end, everyone will still have to go on the record as for or against the final bill. At the same time, the process may speed up the bill's passage while potentially limiting both the public's and many of their elected official's ability to consider the changes to the bill. As with every other major moment of consideration during this bill's journey, both chambers should make the final version (conference report, amendment, substitute) available for at least 72 hours prior to consideration.