We’ve blogged about omnibus and minibus appropriation bills and continuing resolutions (CRs) before. This latest piece of legislation is really not much different from the others. In one single bill, it both sets funding for a number of programs and agencies for the rest of the fiscal year, while also providing money for the other government operations whose appropriation legislation have not yet passed. According to the press release issued by the House Appropriations Committee, this minibus (House Report 112-284) combines the legislation for the Agriculture Subcommittee; Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Subcommittee; and the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Subcommittee. The CR contained within the measure does not alter funding levels for affected agencies and programs, which means it is known as a “clean” CR. It will keep the government open for just under a month, until December 16.
This new minibus might be mildly interesting because it combines the appropriation bills for three subcommittees and a CR, but what is more remarkable is how it was produced: It came about as a result of a conference committee. When the two Chambers have passed two different versions of a bill, they must reconcile their differences before presenting a single piece of legislation to the President for his signature. One Chamber could simply amend its bill to bring it into line with the other’s; when this is not possible, legislators must meet to reach a compromise on the provisions of the bill. The Chamber that has last acted on the item (in other words, the Chamber where the bill is physically located) may invite the other body to form a conference committee. If it accepts, the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority leader decide who will represent their respective Chambers in the conference. Once conferees hammer out a deal approved by a majority of the committee Members, they produce a conference report that explains their work. The Chamber that was invited to the conference committee is the first to act on the committee report. If it passes, it goes to the other body. If it passes there, it goes to the President for his signature. If one of the Chambers does not pass the bill, they may either pursue another compromise through another conference, or one body may amend the legislation to make it acceptable to both.
What makes conference committees especially interesting is the power politics that accompanies them. Here’s what we write about them in Surviving Inside Congress:
While conference committees are often marked by some of Washington’s best “horse trading,” deliberations sometimes disintegrate into a clash of egos between Senate and House chairmen. This is particularly true when different parties have control of the House and Senate. For the sake of decorum, all this takes place behind closed doors, and in some cases no one on the outside has any idea what the measure under consideration will look like until it is sent to the floors of the two Chambers for a vote.
Furthermore, the conference committee has also become a casualty of Congressional partisanship of the recent years. Committee chairmen from each Chamber typically direct the conference committees, so the Speaker and Senate Majority leader have tried to increase their own control over the legislative process by finding ways around the ad hoc panels. We note in Surviving Inside Congress, for instance, that conference committees are rapidly becoming a relic of the past -there were only two conference reports in 2010, but a decade earlier, the House voted on 22 and the Senate 19. Given the politics involved in a conference committee, Washington’s partisanship, and today’s general skepticism regarding Congress’ ability to legislate, it’s heartening to see that the two parties in the two Chambers were able to come together for a compromise. Each party did have to give something up: Politicoreports, for instance, that Republicans agreed to provide food programs with $1 billion more than they originally wanted to, and Democrats agreed to scale back on funds for a commission that oversees Wall Street.
It’s great that the Republicans and Democrats came together on the appropriation bills, but the two sides and two Chambers actually may have agreed a little too much. Politico is also reporting that they included a provision that permits schools to consider pizza with two tablespoons of sauce per slice a serving of vegetables, rather than the half-a-cup standard that the Obama Administration would like to use. This, as well as a provision allowing schools to serve French fries more frequently, has caused a bitofcontroversy. While Big Brother’s decision to allow pizza to continue being served at lunch will make most school kids happy, it raises interesting questions about political philosophy and the legislative process, but these are, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this post. For our purposes, it is noteworthy because the pizza provision was, apparently, not included in either Chamber’s original bill. Therefore, it should not have been introduced into the final agreement, because it is beyond the “scope” of the conference committee. The conferees are, in theory, limited in what they may consider when they try to reach a deal on the legislation. They are supposed to only negotiate on the differences between the two bills and find a happy medium. For instance, if the House provided $2 billion for a program, and the Senate $3 billion, they would have to provide somewhere between the two; they should not provide $1.5 or $3.5 billion. If a conference report contains a provision that is beyond the scope of the conferees’ jurisdiction, a Member may raise a point of order at the beginning of the debate in his or her Chamber. However, it is not self-enforcing, meaning if no one raises a point of order when debate starts, the provision is passed with the rest of the law.
Despite the minor dust up over the school lunch provisions, the bill will most likely pass. Since the minibus contains a CR keeping the government functioning, no one would really want to block the legislation. Plus, it would spoil the fact that the two parties were able to come together and hammer out a deal in a conference committee, even if the agreement is not something as momentous as the Super Committee deal due out next week. It might be disappointing that we are celebrating the fact that Congress is doing an adequate job too late, but, today, little victories count.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.