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Conference committee could still destroy tax reform

Both the House and Senate have passed their respective tax reform bills, but keep the cork in the champagne. The process has to overcome one more hurdle before it hits the president’s desk: The conference committee — the ad hoc, temporary panel created to reconcile differences between the House and Senate bills. 

If you haven’t heard of a conference committee for a while (or ever), it’s understandable. Conference committees, once used repeatedly, are now rarely seen around D.C. In the 106th Congress (1999-2000), conference committees convened 38 times. The 113th Congress (2013-2014) appointed just three.

In part, this is because the process has become far less meaningful than it used to be. Historically, conference committees have been hotbeds for deal making and hard-nosed negotiations among lots of members, with each chamber fighting for its priorities as well as its prestige. The conference committee for the 1981 omnibus budget reconciliation, for example, involved over 250 senators and congressman who met in 58 subconferences to consider nearly 300 issues.

{mosads}In the modern Congress, conference committees tend to be much smaller. Much like the debate in the respective chambers, the conference process is now tightly controlled by leadership with the final product negotiated by a handful of staff, out of sight, and conferees appointed mostly for show.


Despite an effort by leadership to control the outcome, however, the conference process invokes new variables that could lead to a significantly modified bill. 

This is especially true given the amount of arm twisting and deal making taking place, the presence of which could jeopardize support from key factions of conservatives in the House and Senate.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) cast his favorable vote based on a promise from Senate Republican leadership to provide a legislative solution on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a move seen as amnesty by many conservatives. 

Similarly, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) wrung free a commitment from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to support billions in ObamaCare bailouts, another topic sure to trigger the ire of the conservative base. Collins, ever resourceful, also won a commitment to prevent any cuts to Medicare. 

In a move sure to trouble deficit hawks, both House and Senate leadership have announced that they will waive the pay-as-you-go law, which was passed to encourage Congress to keep the deficit in check.

And these are just the deals that we know about. Members across the spectrum may have been bought off for much less, or much more, a fact which will only emerge in tandem with the final vote.

Once the bill gets to conference, other controversial issues within the tax bill will likely surface and must be dealt with, including the state and local tax deduction, the repeal of the individual mandate and the mortgage interest deduction, among others. Deals will have to be cut on these issues, and votes will have to be bought with compromise, policy tweaks and promises. Policies which motivated members to vote for the bill in the House or the Senate may be significantly modified — or dropped altogether.

There’s a reason that former Ways and Means Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) once described the conference process as “akin to mating a Chihuahua with a Great Dane.”

The conference process is, fundamentally, an exercise in negotiation, palm-greasing, strong-arming, supplication and pay-offs. It’s as easy for a bill to successfully emerge, duct-taped together with a truckload of promises and last-minute deals as it is for it to collapse, dead from a thousand cuts.

For conservatives, the question now presents itself: will the tax reform they want to support remain intact? Or will the integrity of the initial bill crumble under the weight of promises to pass DACA, to bailout insurance companies and justify trillion dollar deficits?

The only thing certain about a conference committee is just how uncertain it truly is, especially with so many polarizing side deals already in place. Congress better buckle up, because this tax reform ride is far from over.

Rachel Bovard (@RachelBovard) is the senior director of policy for The Conservative Partnership, a nonprofit group headed by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint aimed at promoting limited government.

Tags Bill Thomas Jeff Flake Mitch McConnell Rachel Bovard Susan Collins Tax reform United States federal budget

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