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Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has committed to a more open process for considering legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives. As a result, lawmakers have been told that more of their amendments to legislation under consideration by the House will be debated and voted on. This is a welcome development. However, the Speaker and his leadership team must commit to keep conservative amendments that pass the House in the final version of legislation negotiated with the Senate. Otherwise, a more open amendment process in the House will be an exercise in messaging and distraction.
In November of last year, Ryan allowed a very open debate on the highway bill. Many amendments were filed and considered on the House floor. The Speaker followed through on his promise to have a more open process. The result, however, was a poor one. The highway bill will last for five years, preventing an incoming Republican president from reforming transportation, upends basic principles of federalism and revives a cornerstone of crony capitalism, the Export-Import Bank. Clearly, allowing amendments to bills doesn't mean that the final product will be more conservative unless there is a concentrated effort by House and Senate leadership to make sure those amendments are part of the final legislative product. That work happens hidden from public view.
When the House and Senate pass legislation addressing the same issue, Congress has two different versions of a bill. The bills have to be harmonized into one piece of legislation, referred to as a conference report. That conference report is written in a conference of representatives and senators, chosen by each chamber's leadership and staff. The completed conference report then gets an up-or-down vote in each chamber. If the conference report passes both chambers, that conference report goes to the president for his consideration.
The conference is where a substantial amount of work is done on bills. Conferences aren't televised, transcripts of them don't exist and very little is said about what happens behind the closed doors. Staff members have a great deal of power during the conference process. They handle the detailed work of crafting conference report language and laying the groundwork for negotiating what will be in the conference report. Staff members will even "pre-conference" a conference report: They will discuss among themselves what should be done at a conference and lay out the parameters of the conference before it even begins.