“An apple and an orange could go into a conference committee and come out a pear,” so said President Ronald Reagan about the congressional conference committees. Few of us realize the power of these committees when it comes to crafting the legislation that had already passed both houses of Congress but differed in content. These committees are formed to adjust the differences in the two chambers’ bills. Each committee is ad hoc. The committees are formed when necessary either by the head of each chamber or by the heads of the involved committees. Use of these conference committees seems to be far worse and more pervasive than any tyranny of a filibuster by a different minority.
There is little restraint on what can happen in conference, especially in regards to the omnibus bills! Congress only started using legislation of the omnibus spending type in 1950. This was done to avoid fights over individual legislation for the funding of the different government branches. More intense lobbying would occur. Anything can be added or subtracted to these far-ranging pieces of legislation by the committee. Congress specifically passed rules that allowed conference committees to be free from the limitation of the legislation under consideration. Last year’s omnibus highway bill of $388 billion was about 1,600 double-sided pages and weighed fourteen pounds. It arrived to the floors of both chambers a few hours before passage. Because of the timing and its huge content, congress members missed a provision that staff members of Congress could review all Americans’ tax returns. Needless to say, many of the recently approved Federal governmental projects that we see around the country, such as the multi-benefit projects in West Virginia, attributed to Robert Byrd or the bridge that goes nowhere in Alaska, recently approved are good examples of what the conference committees can get done.
The original intent of our Founding Fathers was for each chamber to enact legislation and pass it on to the other chamber for its thoughts. Thus, a bill went back and forth until both houses passed it. It was only after the Civil War when there was a flood of veterans’ pension legislation that the conference committee evolved.
Today, there is a very small and limited group of congressional members that dictate the legislation that emanates from Congress. It has become a tyranny of the minority. The larger body of congress members that we all vote for is really impotent, unless they become so powerful that they can be appointed to these conference committees.