Grant Bosse: A field guide to conference committees
If you don’t want to know how the sausage is made, skip over to Katy Burns’s column. The next two weeks are going to be messy at the State House.
The House and Senate are forming committees of conference to hammer out differences between bills passed by both chambers. Veteran representatives from both parties agree the process creates plenty of political gamesmanship.
“If one body has a bill that they know the other body really wants, they’ll try to hold it for the last minute,” explains House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, a 13-term Republican from Bartlett, who has already been through this process as majority leader and speaker.
“Sometimes there’s no compromise,” says Nashua Democratic Rep. David Campbell. “Sometimes it’s ‘my way or the highway’ and the other chamber is willing to walk away if they don’t get it.”
Conference committee reports have to be unanimous, and if a single member refuses to sign off, the bill dies. If everyone agrees, the compromise bill gets up-or-down votes in both chambers. Both bodies must approve the deal to send it to the governor’s desk.
Leadership in control
House and Senate members chafe when they perceive leadership holding too firm a grip. But the committee of conference process marks the apex for both the House speaker’s and Senate president’s influence. Both hold unquestioned authority to appoint members to Conference, and more important, replace recalcitrant members unwilling to strike a deal.
“People think, ‘I’m going to get on the committee of conference and I’ll never agree, so it’s going to die,’ but it doesn’t work that way,” Chandler explains.
A lone holdout needs to find some allies, or get leadership to agree that there’s no deal worth making. Chandler points out that even if there’s no agreement, the speaker and Senate president can form a new committee of conference to take another crack at the issue.
Christmas trees in June
The biggest fight is always over the state budget, HB 1, and its enabling legislation, HB 2. This year’s debate will center on Medicaid expansion and Health and Human Services Department spending, but there are dozens of smaller differences between the House and Senate budgets.
Weare Republican Rep. Neal Kurk says members rely on the Legislative Budget Assistant’s Office to figure out where the two chambers agree and disagree.
“It’s called the Compare Report,” Kurk explains. “So we focus on a relatively narrow subset of a 1,000-page document.”
Kurk says the political momentum behind the budget turns the final package into a “Christmas tree” adorned with unrelated deals.
The House position
While most of the legislative session is Democrat versus Republican, conference committees are more often House versus Senate. Manchester Democratic Rep. Nick Lavasseur says it’s an honor for a junior representative to be chosen.
“It shows that you are an expert in that area, and that you are a member who can fight on behalf of the House for the House’s position.”
This year, the bicameral rivalry is slightly more partisan. Democrats control the House while Republicans have a majority in the Senate.
“It’s a little different this time,” Chandler admits. “Certainly, as House Republicans, we favor most of what the Senate did and are supporting their budget.”
Conference committees even have the power to warp the time-space continuum. Senate Time refers to the “upper” chamber’s tendency to stretch 15-minute breaks to 45 minutes or more. Kurk admits the House sometimes keeps senators waiting, but insists it’s less frequent.
Conference committees take awhile to get going, but deals will come together quickly as the June 20 deadline approaches. The last day of the budget conference is reliably chaotic.
In the past, creative leaders have evaded the Thursday noon deadline by “stopping the clock.” Sometimes, Thursday morning can stretch into the weekend. House Clerk Karen Wadsworth discourages missed deadlines so that other members and the public can stay informed.
“It didn’t happen last year, and I don’t think it’s going to happen again,” Wadsworth predicts.
Tedious and exciting
Lavasseur expected the atmosphere on his first conference to be rigid, but found it surprisingly relaxed.
“You’re dealing with an equal chamber that may have a different opinion, but they all have the same goal of producing good legislation, and it’s very easy to work with them.”
After all, a bill doesn’t get to conference unless a majority of both chambers support some version of it. Kurk has some advice for navigating what he says is a tedious by always exciting process.
“Be calm. It will end. Be nice to people,” Kurk. “You never get what you want, but it’s something that ‘Ah, I can live with that.’ ”
So while tempers may sometimes grow short as the nights grow longer, lawmakers usually get along.
“That’s been my experience, and I hope for the same in this go round,” Campbell adds.
(Grant Bosse is editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy. He is a senior fellow at the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.)