A “conference committee” is a temporary joint committee specifically created to reconcile differences between House-passed and Senate-passed versions of a bill.
Comprising an equal number of members from both the House and Senate, the conference committee plays a critical role in negotiating a compromise on the particular areas where the two versions of the legislation differ.
Function of a “Conference Committee”
When a bill is passed by one chamber and amended by the other, and those amendments are not accepted, a conference committee is formed.
The appointed conferees draft a “conference report” to reconcile the differences. This report must adhere to specific guidelines and limitations, such as the “scope rule.”
Conference committees have historically shaped significant U.S. legislation by encouraging collaboration and facilitating the passage of complex bills.
This reflects the interests of both chambers, bridging gaps between legislative philosophies and partisan divides.
Despite their importance, conference committees have faced criticism for a lack of transparency and potential undue influence by select interest groups.
In lieu of a conference committee, a bill is sometimes subject to ping pong between the chambers.
One well-known example of a conference committee at work is the deliberation over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as Obamacare.
The ACA was a landmark piece of legislation aimed at overhauling the U.S. healthcare system.
It passed the House of Representatives in November 2009 and later the Senate in December of the same year. However, the versions passed by the two chambers had significant differences.
A conference committee was expected to reconcile these differences, but the process took a unique turn.
After the special election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) in January 2010, Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
This shift forced the House to adopt the Senate’s version of the bill, rather than go through the traditional conference committee process, to avoid potential filibustering in the Senate.
Though a formal conference committee was not ultimately utilized for the ACA, the process leading up to that decision provides an illustrative example of how these committees function and the political calculations involved in large-scale legislative endeavors.
It also shows how the conference committee process can be affected by the broader political landscape and strategic considerations.
Use of “Conference Committee” in a sentence
- After lengthy debates and amendments in both the House and the Senate, a conference committee was formed to iron out the differences and reach a consensus on the comprehensive tax reform bill.
- Critics of the legislative process often cite the lack of transparency in conference committee deliberations as a major concern, arguing that important decisions are sometimes made behind closed doors without public scrutiny.
- The formation of a conference committee signaled a significant step forward in the passage of the healthcare legislation, as members from both chambers worked diligently to reconcile differing provisions and craft a unified bill for final approval.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.