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GOP leadership must fight for conservative amendments when in conference


Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has committed to a more open process for considering legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives. As a result, lawmakers have been told that more of their amendments to legislation under consideration by the House will be debated and voted on. This is a welcome development. However, the Speaker and his leadership team must commit to keep conservative amendments that pass the House in the final version of legislation negotiated with the Senate. Otherwise, a more open amendment process in the House will be an exercise in messaging and distraction.

{mosads}In November of last year, Ryan allowed a very open debate on the highway bill. Many amendments were filed and considered on the House floor. The Speaker followed through on his promise to have a more open process. The result, however, was a poor one. The highway bill will last for five years, preventing an incoming Republican president from reforming transportation, upends basic principles of federalism and revives a cornerstone of crony capitalism, the Export-Import Bank. Clearly, allowing amendments to bills doesn’t mean that the final product will be more conservative unless there is a concentrated effort by House and Senate leadership to make sure those amendments are part of the final legislative product.

That work happens hidden from public view.

When the House and Senate pass legislation addressing the same issue, Congress has two different versions of a bill. The bills have to be harmonized into one piece of legislation, referred to as a conference report. That conference report is written in a conference of representatives and senators, chosen by each chamber’s leadership and staff. The completed conference report then gets an up-or-down vote in each chamber. If the conference report passes both chambers, that conference report goes to the president for his consideration.

The conference is where a substantial amount of work is done on bills. Conferences aren’t televised, transcripts of them don’t exist and very little is said about what happens behind the closed doors. Staff members have a great deal of power during the conference process. They handle the detailed work of crafting conference report language and laying the groundwork for negotiating what will be in the conference report. Staff members will even “pre-conference” a conference report: They will discuss among themselves what should be done at a conference and lay out the parameters of the conference before it even begins.

The conference process isn’t transparent; it’s controlled by a congressional leadership, a small number of representatives and senators, and has significant staff input. That makes it the perfect place to stop conservative amendments passed in either chamber from becoming part of the final conference report. For example, House leadership will allow conservative amendments to be debated, voted upon and ultimately become part of a bill. But the leadership will often have no intention of robustly fighting for inclusion of those amendments in the final conference report. The votes on amendments are “show votes” that leadership will use to try to defuse conservative objections to legislation or to give Republican members an opportunity for to vote for something conservative, something to show the grass roots.

Those amendments often die a quick, quiet death in conference when congressional Republican leadership do not fight for them.

Republican leadership in the House and Senate must end that practice. Naturally, not all conservative amendments will be included in every conference report; the nature of a republic is such that laws are the outcome of negotiation. But Republican leadership should go into a negotiation with Democrats in conference committed to produce the most conservative conference report possible. In cases where the legislation in conference has had conservative amendments attached to it in either chamber, Republican leadership should not treat those amendments as bargaining chips automatically given up to make the bill acceptable to the establishment.

Those amendments should be understood as vital components of legislation that should only be begrudgingly jettisoned in a conference when other conservative priorities are guaranteed inclusion in the conference report. If Democrats block conservative priorities in conference, whether by fighting over conservative bill language or amendments, Republican leadership should have the strength and courage to walk away. Better to refuse to be complicit in creating a conference report that would mock conservative policies than to move status-quo conference reports.

Over the next several months, the House will consider more and more amendments to bills on the House floor. That is a positive development, and those debates can be followed by the voters on C-SPAN. But conferences, where bills are finalized, are closed to the voters. Conservative principles must be fought for there, not surrendered to advance the work of the establishment. Americans deserve more than amendments that are just for show. They deserve amendments that make bills better and become law. Our nation’s problems won’t be solved by tweets and tweaks. They will be fixed with conservative legislation and amendments championed by congressional Republican leadership.

Siefring is director of strategic initiatives for FreedomWorks. Follow him on Twitter @NeilSiefring.

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