ABC’s Z. Byron Wolf reports: This gets into the parliamentary weeds just a bit, but it bears mentioning that conference committees have been a rarity on Capitol Hill in recent years.
Time was after the Senate passed a bill and the House passed a bill, representatives of the two would get together and have a conference.
The way legislation has been moving through Congress, however, there have not been many conferences in recent years. And the ones there have been have often been closed. The 2008 Farm Bill was a notable exception.
When Democrats took control of Congress, they promised to be more open, unlock the doors and let the sun shine in on conference committees.
Here is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November 2006, after it was clear Democrats had won the House and just before George Allen conceded defeat to give Democrats control of the House, too.
"We have so much to work on," Reid said. "And I think it would be untoward for us to talk about what we’re going to do when we take control of the Senate. A lot of things to do. Whatever we do, we’re going to try to do it on a bipartisan basis. If we are fortunate enough to pass something — we’re going to have something that a lot of you young journalists have never seen, and that is an open conference committee, where we — the Democrats and Republicans — sit down in a room just like this around a table, and you raise issues and you say, oh, is this a good or bad issue? And there’s a vote that takes place. That’s what we’re going to do."
Later that same month, he reiterated the point.
Reid: "My goal is to reestablish the legislative branch of government as deemed to be so important in checks and balances by our Founding Fathers," Reid said. "We’re going to do things that haven’t been — that have not been done in many years. We’re going to treat the minority, the Republicans as they did not treat us. They’ll be involved in decisions when we have legislation that passes this body. We’re going to have conferences with the House. I’ve already spoken to Leader Pelosi — real conferences, public conferences, where public issues will be debated and voted upon before taking a conference report back to the two bodies."
There has been only one conference since Democrats took control of Congress; most bills have been passed when the House accepted the Senate’s version. But today Reid is in the predicament of actually having to hold a conference on the stimulus bill, which passed the Senate only with a delicate compromise crafted behind closed doors by centrist Republicans and Democrats.
At a press conference on Capitol Hill today, Reid said the simple fact that the conference was taking place was a step in the right direction.
"Normally what we do in conferences — now, remember, the Republicans, when they controlled the Congress, we’ve had no conferences. The few conferences that were held were done in secret with only the Republicans being part of the conference. And then, during the eight years of the Bush administration, there were absolutely none done," he argued. "This is all new. As I explained to my caucus today, the majority of senators who are Democrats have never been involved in a — in a conference. So this is going to — this is a conference."
So, will the upcoming conference be public and open with cameras rolling? No word yet and the conference is supposed to start tonight.