Congress returns to Washington tomorrow to begin the difficult process of bridging the differences between the health reform bills passed by the Senate and House. Usually, this would involve creation of a conference committee - consisting of members appointed by the House and Senate leadership and from the committees of jurisdiction - to lead the negotiations on producing a common bill - called a conference agreement - which would then be voted on as a substitute to the original bills as approved earlier by the respective chambers.
But as Jonathan Cohn reports today in the New Republic, Democrats are "almost certain" to substitute informal negotiations for a formal conference process to "avoid a series of procedural steps--not least among them, a series of special motions in the Senate, each requiring a vote with full debate - that Republicans could use to stall deliberations" as they did in November and December. Read Paul Blumental's Sunlight Foundation blog for a good explanation of how the decision to bypass the conference process will allow for speedier consideration of the bill while "potentially limiting both the public's and many of their elected official's ability to consider the changes to the bill."
The decision to forgo the conference process is not that unusual. Both political parties have muscled legislation through, without a conference report, when they have had the majority, and even when a conference committee has been convened, it often has been more of a showcase than the open and transparent process described by House and Senate rules.
But this time, a decision to forgo a conference agreement creates political risks for President Obama, since he ran on a promise of transparency. Politifact, an independent fact-checking web site, reported earlier this year that President Obama promised during the campaign to bring "all parties together, not negotiating behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are, because part of what we have to do is enlist the American people in this process."
I am sure that administration and its Democratic allies will argue that it is Republican obstructionism that has forced them to bypass the conference process, but my gut tells me that this will play into the hands of critics. They will argue that it is more evidence that the legislation is the product of secret backroom deals, and this will make it harder for President Obama and his Democratic congressional allies to persuade a public that already is distrustful of Washington that the final bill is good for them. At the same time, I also have no doubt that the GOP would use a formal conference process to delay a vote as long as possible, during which they would work to intensify public opposition to its passage.
It would have been nice to think that both parties might have resolved to play nicer in the New Year, but 2010 is starting off the same way as last year, with both parties locked into a take-no-prisoners conflict that leaves no room for bipartisanship.
Today's question: What is your opinion of the Democrats' decision to bypass a conference agreement?