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November 29, 2012 9:12 AM Reform: Get to Conference

By Jonathan Bernstein

Since I wrote about my lack of enthusiasm for eliminating filibusters on the motion to proceed to bills yesterday, I figure I should write one today about a reform that the Senate Democrats are pushing which I do strongly agree with: eliminating filibuster opportunities on getting to conference after a bill has passed.

Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann have been complaining about the demise of proper conference committees (the formal, open, procedure in which House and Senate differences are reconciled after a bill passed both chambers) for some time now, and they’re correct. Over the last several Congresses, party leaders have found it far easier to reach deals behind closed doors, often eliminating even the shell of a formal conference.

That’s bad practice for lots of reasons. It also takes place for lots of reasons, with the difficulty of getting through filibusters to, say, appoint conferees only one of those reasons. But if it’s even slightly a reason, that’s a good reason to get rid of it (I believe there are actually three different opportunities for debate, and therefore filibuster, involved in getting to conference after a bill has passed).

I said yesterday that the motion to proceed filibuster doesn’t matter much, because if there’s not 60, there’s no reason to move forward in the first place. What I should have added is that the fight over the motion to proceed therefore has some positive value; it produces useful information for the Majority Leader and the bill managers. It even makes sense to have it on bills but not nominations, since there’s a whole lot more information to deal with on bills; someone might be willing, for example, to vote for a bill only if a particular amendment is adopted, or even only if a particular amendment can be offered. Now, that doesn’t necessary mean the current method of using filibusters on the motion to proceed is necessarily ideal, but it does mean that there’s a reasonable case for it.

On going to conferences and appointing conferees, however, there’s no good reason at all for allowing additional delay. The bill has passed. The next round — the bill emerging from a compromise with the House — isn’t available yet for debate. All these filibusters do is just extend delay for delay’s sake; or, to put it another way, they make a filibuster more costly for a 60-vote majority for no particular reason.

So whatever else winds up in the final reform package, this one is a good idea, and good for Merkley/Udall for pushing for it.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.