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.

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  • Thanks Sarah, that’s really helpful perspective!


  • I’m biased, I’ll admit. The organization I represent fought for nearly 20 years to mandate open conference committees in our state legislature, and we finally won in 2009. So I think it’s important.

    During those 20 long years, advocates for open cc’s constantly ran up against the argument that it would just drive candid discussions underground. Specifically, it would drive them across the street to the Rio Chama Steakhouse, opponents said. In a related argument, opponents said that if cc’s were open, they would turn into meaningless formalities. And maybe that will happen over time. (The first-ever open cc was quite the opposite…read about the fireworks at

    These arguments may be valid from a realpolitik standpoint, and part of the issue here is that the conference-committee process in Washington is far more laborious and fraught than our state one. Nevertheless, I still believe we should strive for maximum openness. The rules say conference committees have to be open, and we shouldn’t let them get away with this one. The line between formalities and actual government business is blurry anyway…let’s not concede what small ground we’ve won for openness.

    I agree that there are measures that may ultimately effect greater transparency than open conference committees. Open cc’s are not a panacea, but they are one tent-pole, and I just wanted to give a shout-out to them.

    Keep up the great work!

    New Mexico Foundation for Open Government

  • If the conference committee is not the proper place then identify what is then go after this.

    Of course some things should be held private when it comes to government proceedings but debating an overhaul of our healthcare system is not one of them.

    We need to be exposed to the back room deals conducted by both parties. The quest for government should always be bipartisan.

    Keep it up Sunlight Foundation. Love what you are doing.

  • Nowhere is sunlight and transparency more important than when literally life and death decisions are being made by 535 elected members of Congress. There are a lot of different threads and arguments in this post, all of which could be fully debated individually. I’ll tackle just a few here.

    A reader of this post that has not been tracking the past two years on the campaign trail would be left with the impression that CSpan made the call for transparency out of whole cloth. CSpan is simply calling the President to account for his own promises running for President, not unlike the off-hand comment made by the Speaker today. These are not CSpans demands; they are the President’s.

    John is quite right, though, that simply focusing on the conference committees would miss the larger question of transparency in the legislative process. Avoiding conference committee may have limited overall impact on transparency, but it does lock out the representatives of a large swath of the American people from the discussion. Representation, of course, is at the very foundation of our constitutional experiment, and in this case, with 178 Republican members (est. 700,000 constituents per rep), this means that perhaps 124.5M Americans have not had a voice in this legislation.

    Moving on, John is also right that many conversations will still happen in private. However, as a former Governor’s appointee in Texas, I was always quite sensitive to our Open Meetings Act that clearly stated that any more than 3 members of a board in a conversation constituted a meeting and was thus open.

    Ultimately, the biggest question is why should government take away decisions and liberty from the people? Since the New Deal, the line between the sovereign and government has become increasingly blurred. With legislation that affects the health of every American and actually takes many decisions away from them, the line between tyranny and liberty may become more blurred than James Madison ever expected…