Byline: Gary J. Andres, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Now that the House and Senate have adopted different versions of immigration legislation, textbook explanations of lawmaking suggest the bill's fate rests in the hands of a conference committee. Congress uses these temporary bicameral panels which some call the "Third House" of Congress to resolve differences in competing versions of legislation.
But lawmakers often find exceptions to textbook explanations and immigration reform provides a case in point. True, most predict contentious House-Senate negotiations on the issue. But "where" and "when" are key questions. Creation of a conference committee will be more an indication that a deal is done than a forum to find one. In other words, lawmakers may not even officially create a bicameral negotiating panel until they have found a clear path toward a workable compromise a process that may take weeks of private, informal discussions before conferees ever formally meet.
Conference committees are not mandatory. They offer one way to resolve differences between chambers, but there is no requirement that lawmakers even use this procedure. According to Walter Oleszek at the CongressionalResearch Service, only 15 to 25 percent of all laws passed by Congress ever reach the conference-committee stage. Lawmakers normally resolve differences either by one house adopting the other's version or by "ping-ponging" measures back and forth until substantive disagreements are ironed out. Conference committees are never formed in either of those cases.
However, Mr. Oleszek also notes that most controversial bills that become law do go through the House-Senate conference process. Immigration definitely clears the divisiveness threshold. But sending a politically charged bill to a formal conference immediately and hoping differences get resolved there is not a tactic preferred by the GOP leadership.
When lawmakers do decide to form a formal conference committee, its procedures are exercised in congressional discretion with only a few set rules and precedents. The House and Senate each choose members drawn heavily from the committees that authored the legislation. In the Senate, the presiding officer appoints from a list developed by the chair and ranking member of the committee that passed the bill. In the House, the speaker appoints all conferees and sometimes draws in members of the leadership. Each house has one vote on issues under consideration in the conference; therefore there is a "House position" and a "Senate position" on any provision in disagreement. …