Conference Committees Not a Panacea


Over the last few days, there has been considerable discussion over transparency and the health care bills.

It has been widely speculated that congressional leaders will forgo formal conference proceedings, and, in an unusual move, C-SPAN called for access to “all important negotiations.”

As Paul pointed out Monday, evaluating transparency in the current health care bill is trickier than it may seem. Discussing health care has led partisans on both sides to cry foul on secrecy, or to cry foul on transparency. In that last link, the Wonkroom blog goes so far as to conclude that “when it comes to legislating, transparency is overrated.”

Legislative transparency work should not be dismissed quite so casually, or equated to a few opportunistic calls for access to conference deliberations.

The Sunlight Foundation has long called for a number of specific measures to create more legislative transparency throughout the legislative process. We’ve called for bills to be posted online for 72 hours before final consideration. We’ve worked for better access to legislative data, to committee and floor video, to voting records, ethics records, and earmarks. Sunlight has called for these and many other changes, while at the same time recognizing that some conversations will always happen in private.

C-SPAN’s call for access to conference proceedings has led many to believe that conference committees are the more transparent route, perhaps a significant opportunity for public involvement. That conclusion, however, ignores the reality of conference committees, which, in actuality, are rarely a public window into actual negotiations. Far from it — many conference committee proceedings are nothing more than hollow formalities.

To set up conference committees as the panacea for public access to major legislation is to operate on an unrealistic idealized version of how Congress works. Paul Blumenthal is writing a more detailed look at the changing dynamics of the legislative process, and there’s a CRS report here that details the procedures by which the two chambers can reconcile legislation.

Of course, with or without a formal conference committee, the health care bill will probably be riddled with giveaways and special accommodations for specific legislators. The New York Times referred to these provisions as intended for “Very Specific Beneficiaries.” There’s a separate discussion to be had about when such haggling is appropriate, and when it’s corrupting and wasteful. Legislative negotiation, however, won’t be significantly altered by formal conference proceedings, and neither will they be affected by simplistic calls for all negotiations to be public.