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The Nitty Gritty of Calling for 72 Hours for the Final Health Care Bill

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As Jake wrote last week, the final version of the health care bill must be made publicly available for 72 hours prior to floor consideration. For us here at Sunlight figuring out what that exactly means has been a moderately arduous task over the past week. The legislative process to be used, “ping-pong,” is fairly confusing and, due to that, pin-pointing the final version is difficult. I'm going to try and unpack this in the best way possible here.

How exactly does this “ping-pong” process work? “Ping-pong,” like the game, envisions the two chambers sending amendments to the bill back and forth with multiple votes on amendments. Ultimately, the chambers will reach agreement and the bill will finally be considered passed.

Below is a quick summation of what that entails (for the full version please read this CRS Report):

  1. Choose a legislative vehicle to amend. This could be the House bill or the Senate bill.
  2. One chamber – let's say the House – proposes an amendment or a series of amendments to alter the language of the bill. In the case of the health care bill it is highly likely that this amendment will come in the form of a single amendment in the form of a substitute.
  3. The second chamber – the Senate in this example – is then offered three options: agree to the House amendment, agree to the House amendment with further amendment or reject (if there are multiple House amendments the Senate may agree with some and disagree with others).
  4. If the Senate agrees to the House amendment to the bill then the bill is considered passed and heads to the President for his signature. If the Senate, however, decides to further amend the House amendments then they can report the bill back to the House with a Senate amendment to the House amendment to the bill. (More on rejection later.)
  5. If this happens, the bill and it's amendments can go to each chamber only once more before the process ends with either a passed, amended bill or the rejection of the process, which doesn't necessarily mean the bill has been defeated.
  6. If rejection happens anywhere along the way, it can come with a motion from the rejecting chamber to do a number of things. These could hypothetically be a motion from the Senate for the House to recede on parts of their amendment(s); a motion to form a conference committee; or a motion to begin the process again.

(There are many more possibilities that can occur along the way. Please read the aforementioned CRS report for those details.)

So... where in this lies the FINAL bill. First and foremost, we consider the first amendment to the bill to be the final version of the bill. This amendment must be made available for at least 72 hours prior to a vote. This means that if the amendment is made available on Monday both chambers could, conceivably, consider and vote in the affirmative on this amendment on Thursday. But, you say, the second considering chamber can offer their own amendment to the first amendment offered. If the amendment offered by the second considering chamber contain major changes to the legislation or the original amendment(s) in the “ping-pong” process it needs to be available for 72 hours before the second considering chamber can consider them. If the amendment offered by the second considering chamber consist solely of minor technical edits, it need not be available.

There is a little bit of Calvinball involved here, but I think that is totally reasonable considering the unpredictability of the process. All that we, the public, need to do is remain vigilant in ensuring that this complicated process remains as transparent as it can be until it reaches an endpoint.