Sure, Tuesday was a great night for Republicans. But the election outcome could be even bigger for a forgotten hero of American politics: the bill.
You likely remember him from “Schoolhouse Rock” — “just a bill, sitting here on Capitol Hill” — singing about the trials and tribulations of the journey to the president’s desk. There may be hope for the bill yet.
During the last Congress, very little came out of the Senate. Even less went to the president’s desk, largely because so few passable bills were ever brought to the floor. When bills of broad interest were called up by Majority Leader Harry Reid, he denied senators the chance to offer amendments, frustrating both sides. On the rare occasion that something managed to pass, the odds of the House and Senate coming to an agreement were slim to none.
Now, for the first time in eight years, alignment of the House and Senate under one party’s leadership reopens the door to moving meaningful legislation from one side of the Capitol to the other. Equally tantalizing for governance wonks, we might once again see genuine House-Senate conference committees — something that became all but extinct in recent years.
As the name implies, the House-Senate conference brings together representatives from both chambers to work out differences between competing versions of legislation. In their most basic form, conferences consist of informal negotiations between specially appointed members and/or their staff. More formally, full meetings with conferees from both parties might involve debate and amendments designed to find consensus. Once quite commonplace, the number that occurred in the most recent Congress could be counted on one hand.
I recall, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I participated in one conference deep in the Capitol’s basement featuring two dozen congressmen and senators, lots of posturing, and even a few amendments. The Senate conferees were led by Missouri Republican Kit Bond and Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski, both of whom brought life to the phrase “gruff but lovable.” A lowly House member at the time, I could only see the gruff (though both would become good friends during my time in the Senate). Things really got interesting when Jack Lew, budget director for President Bill Clinton, came into the meeting with the White House demands.
Yes, it was contentious — even ugly. But without a process to resolve policy differences, they don’t get resolved. Conference lore holds that in the 1960s, neither the House nor Senate Appropriations chairman wanted to cross through the rotunda to meet in “hostile territory.” The two settled on a room in the exact center of the Capitol building — Room EF-100 — and held conference committee meetings there for years afterward.
With new and stronger Republican majorities, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are in a position to reignite the legislative boilers that have gone cold. That doesn’t necessarily mean a partisan approach. Even with the 54 Republican senators suggested by Tuesday’s results, McConnell will need Democratic allies on every bill to close debate and avoid filibusters. In the Senate, those votes are produced by giving members the chance to offer amendments that shape legislation to their liking.
In an opinion piece last week, the two Republican leaders presented an agenda centered on the economy and job creation — issues well-suited to a more open legislative approach. On energy, for example, there’s plenty of consensus around incentives for domestic production, conservation, and construction of the Keystone pipeline — something that 61 members of the new Senate have endorsed. McConnell’s challenge will be to maintain the patience required to set aside floor time and allow the Senate work its will.
The House won’t pass precisely the same energy bill, which is where the conference comes into play. It gets Democrats, Republicans, House members, and senators in the same room — or at least talking to one another. Beyond hammering out legislation that can actually pass both chambers of Congress, the end result should be a little more confidence in the process and trust in one another. It’s a change that veterans will welcome and new members will come to appreciate.
Opening up the Senate legislative process to amendments and holding House-Senate conferences is no guarantee of a return to glory, but it would mark the return of Congress operating in a more normal and traditional way. Contrary to the cliched lament, the system isn’t “broken” and never has been. It was throttled — more accurately, the Senate was throttled — by partisanship, insecurity, and a misguided desire to protect vulnerable candidates from tough votes. Let’s hope those days are gone.