Last Congress, House and Senate appointed 43 conferees to settle an energy bill -- and the unwieldy, conference lasted nearly a year.
Yesterday, conferences got under way on two of this year's energy bills -- one to set up an Energy Mobilization Board to speed major projects, the other to stimulate synfuel production.
There are 36 conferees on the first, 50 on the second. Almost no one expects them to end in a hurry, especially, the synfuels conference. That one is likely to be bedlam, say Rep. John Dingel (D-Mich.), "like a meeting of the U.N."
Mindful of this problem, President Carter, who wants both bills passed, called the synfuels conferees to the White House yesterday for what was described as "tough talk" using "language he does not commonly use" to goad them along.
He urged them to try to finish by Christmas, and conference leaders later divided the conferees into sub-committees to deal with the 354-page bill in sections in hopes of speeding their work.
The problem for the leaders who appoint conferees in both houses is that every interest group wants to be in the room when the decisive conference votes are cast. Every committee and subcommittee with any claim to jurisdiction wants to be represented, too.
The result: conferences cease to be bargaining sessions and become slow-motion replays of fights that have already taken place on the floors.
The Senate leadership was totally accommodating about the competition for energy conference seats.Everyone who wanted to be a conferee got to be.
The entire 18-member Senate Energy Committee was named to the conference committee on the Energy Mobilization Board. The Agriculture, Energy and Banking committees all are heavily represented in the synfuels conference.
The House leadership tried to be more selective in making appointments. Some think it did so partly to influence the outcome of the conferences. Leading synfuel opponents were left off that conference committee. Left off the Mobilization Board committee were members opposed to a controversial provision that in some situations would let the board over-ride existing federal laws that stand in the way of energy projects.
Some who were left off protested. Most of the protests involved the Commerce Committee.
The Commerce and Interior committees both were involved in writing the Mobilization Board bill. Three Commerce members who opposed empowering the board to override other federal laws -- Reps. Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.), Tim Wirth (D-Colo.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) -- were originally left off the conference committee even though they outrank in seniority other Commerce members who got on.
Wirth appealed to Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neil Jr. (D-Mass.) and got on. Eckhardt got one of the seats allocated to the Interior Committee, of which he is also a member.
The Commerce Committee also has partial jurisdiction over the synfuels bill. Two Commerce members with reservations about that bill -- Reps. Richard Ottinger (D-N.Y.) and Toby Moffett (d-Conn.) -- were left off the conference committee in favor of more junior members. That left no New England Democrats from Commerce in the conference, and 14 New Englanders led by Rep. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn) protested that.
The leadership has their protest under advisement.
Most of the Commerce members left out blame Dingell, who as chairman of Commerce's subcommittee on energy, had an important hand in choosing the conferees.