Three days before Thanksgiving, the bipartisan congressional “supercommittee” announced it had failed in its task to tame the country’s debt, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle decried a debt-ceiling deal that they believed had delegated Congress’s decision-making duties to a 12-member panel.
Now, five days before Christmas, House Republicans are rallying around the idea of a conference committee in order to resolve differences between the chambers on a payroll tax cut package.
If so many lawmakers thought the supercommittee was such a bad idea, why is the notion of a conference committee suddenly in vogue on Capitol Hill?
The difference, some GOP members say, is that a conference committee would be a return to “regular order” in Congress. They argue that would be acceptable because both the House and Senate have passed their own versions of the same bill, and the committee could work out the differences.
“Oh, my God, if you’re asking the difference between a conference committee and a supercommittee, you must not understand the government,” Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) said Tuesday. “I mean, a conference committee is something that certainly is part of the regular order of the process.”
By contrast, Landry said, the supercommittee was a creation of the debt-ceiling deal that delegated responsibility for drafting far-reaching legislation to a group of 12 members from both chambers.
“Did you ever watch, ‘That’s Just a Bill?’” Landry said, referring to the Schoolhouse Rock show detailing how a bill becomes a law. “No supercommittee in that show.”
That the supercommittee was not mandated by the Constitution – and that it was given broad jurisdiction in tackling the country’s debt – made it quite different from the idea of a conference committee, some GOP lawmakers say.
“The process is the House works its will; the Senate works its will. When there’s a difference, they go to conference,” Landry said. “That’s a long-standing tradition. The supercommittee’s not long-standing. That is some committee created because they can’t do their job.”
Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), a freshman who in the summer expressed concern about being “committeed to death,” said Tuesday that he backed the idea of a conference committee because it would be a return to regular order.
“This is what they talk about doing, the regular order,” Kelly said. “We send a bill to the Senate. If they don’t like it, they amend it; they send it back to us. We don’t like, so we say, ‘Okay, fine. There’s portions of this bill that we both like. Let’s go sit down together and work it out.’ And I think that makes sense for the American people.”
The payroll tax debate has been anything but “regular,” though. During the debate on Monday and Tuesday, some Democrats opposed the idea of a conference committee. They noted that an overwhelming majority in the Senate as well as House Democrats and the White House back the plan negotiated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) argued that Republicans “claim to support this middle-class tax cut, but they are really trying to bury it in a committee.”
“Speaker Boehner is using one of the oldest tricks in Washington of claiming to support something and then sending it to a legislative graveyard where it never sees the light of day,” Schumer said in a statement Monday.
And in Tuesday’s floor debate, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) urged lawmakers not to sign onto the idea.
“Let’s not send this middle-class tax cut to die in another Washington bureaucratic committee,” she said.