The Conference Committee: Where bills are laid to rest quietly, with little fanfare and no fingerprints.

As we enter the last two weeks of the legislative session, it is a good time to explain the basics of the Conference Committee process.  Please, stifle the yawn and force yourself if possible to read on.  I promise that both, those of you who are intrigued and those who may be baffled by the lawmaking process, will find this fascinating.

If you are looking for the positive and optimistic, please jump to the conclusion.   As those who know me, know by now – I am not prone to sugar coat the reality that is the legislative process.

Please hang in there with me, as we navigate some of the twists and turns.

We start with the premise that the most important thing to the vast majority of elected officials, is to remain elected.  As I have said before, this is not a bad thing.  If you believe in the work you are doing, you want to keep doing it.  This is human nature.

Next we acknowledge that every time any vote is cast, someone’s ox is gored and thus there is a political price for every vote.  Every issue has multiple facets and every time a politician chooses a side, he or she loses some degree of popularity and political good will.

A legislator can vote to pass a bill or to not pass a bill.  Both of these votes have political repercussions.

Somewhere along the line, some astute politician figured out if they wanted to cut their political risk in half they should cut the amount of votes they cast in half as well.  This has resulted in a system in which politicians only vote in situations where the bill will pass.  They never vote in opposition to anything and voila, their political exposure is instantly cut in half. To further minimize the political risk, the vast majority of all votes are also “encouraged” by the legislative leadership to be unanimous.

In short, the legislative process is designed to minimize voting, especially voting on issues of controversy that do not enjoy broad unanimity of support.

Are you still with me?  I hope so because now that we have established the foundation of the “why they are doing this”, we will get to the “how they do this”.

How does the legislature process several thousand bills, pass only several hundred and avoid voting no on the rest?

The first and easiest method to kill a bill without voting is to have the Chair of the Committee responsible for the bill’s subject matter, simply not schedule a hearing.  Boom, the bill is dead. The second most common way to kill a bill is when a committee hears a bill but the Chair recommends to “defer indefinitely”.  This motion is an interesting one and there is not a vote nor is there any debate.  But, boom, boom – the bill is dead.

At this point in the process, the bills that have survived go on to the infamous “Conference Committee (CC)” which is a committee made up by members of the House and Senate, whose purpose is to “reconcile the differences” between the House and Senate “positions”.

The CC rules are rather arcane, but essentially state that the Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee (WAM) and the Chair of the House Finance Committee, (FIN) have veto power over any and all bills that have “fiscal impacts”, which essentially means…errr…any and all bills!

The rules also state clearly that CC meetings must be public, and further make it clear that the public may not speak at those same public meetings. At these public meetings there is also no process for submitting formal public testimony to the CC, though individual CC members may be sent email or contacted directly (outside of the formal meeting).

At least 24 hours notice is required for the first CC meeting but subsequent meetings on the same day may be rescheduled until midnight on that day without additional public notice, so long as it is announced in public at the prior meeting. The rules state that notice for these subsequent meetings be made “as soon as possible” but there is no minimum requirement.

As you can see (insert heavy sarcasm here), these public meetings are designed to provide easy access for the public, especially that 1/3 of the public residing in areas that require an airplane ride in order to attend (and not be able to speak).

There are myriad ways to kill bills at this point, without anyone casting a vote,

  1. The House Speaker and/or Senate President can simply not name Conferrees to the CC.
  2. Any Chair of the CC (there will be at least 2, one for Senate and one for House) can refuse to schedule a CC meeting, or fail to sign the meeting notice.
  3. The CC can just announce they could not reach an agreement.
  4. The member of the CC that represents WAM or FIN on the CC can refuse to agree.

NOTE: WAM and FIN can argue virtually every bill has “fiscal implications” as any “action” of any kind will require some staff time to implement, which has a budget impact of sorts.

Technically a majority of members of the CC are required to pass a bill out of the CC, but the member designated to represent WAM or FIN has the power to kill any bill, regardless of the CC’s majority decision.

So, how can the public be involved and effective in such a byzantine political environment?

First, be aware of what is happening and who is involved.  Email and call all Conferees which are listed on the bill’s “status” sheet that is available at www.capitol.hawaii.gov  If you can afford the time, show up at the CC meetings and use social media to report on the progress or lack of progress.

Second, remember that at the end of the day the “majority” of members are responsible for the actions of House/Senate leadership.  Contact “your” Senator and Representative and let them know your thoughts and feelings about the issue.

The jury is still out on 2019 legislative session.  There remains potential for it to be a great one and to pass initiatives into law that promote a bold and positive economic, environment and social justice agenda.  Or, they could decide to err on the side of mediocrity, and fail miserably.

The actions of legislators, both individually and collectively have tangible consequences. People and the planet suffer when they fail to take positive actions and instead fall back on the default and once politically safe position of accepting the status quo.

While some might wonder how it is possible, I do believe in our system of democracy.  Yes, it often fails to deliver on its promise and potential, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill, I know of no other system that is better.  It is up to us to take ownership of our government, to be involved, and to take responsibility for its successes and its failures.

First published in The Garden Island newspaper: April 17th, 2019

gary at mic with lei

 

About garyhooser

This blog represents my thoughts as an individual person. I presently serve now as a volunteer President of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (H.A.P.A.) www.hapahi.org In a past life I was an elected member of the Kauai County Council, a Hawaii State Senator and Majority Leader and the Director of Environmental Quality Control for the State of Hawaii - in an even earlier incarnation I was an entrepreneur and small business owner. Yes, I am one of the luckiest guys on the planet. “Come to the edge.” “We can’t. We’re afraid.” “Come to the edge.” “We can’t. We will fall!” “Come to the edge.” And they came. And he pushed them. And they flew. - Christopher Logue (b.1926)
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2 Responses to The Conference Committee: Where bills are laid to rest quietly, with little fanfare and no fingerprints.

  1. Rae says:

    Thank you for this information. During the last legislative session, there were various bills in conference committee that were pulled at the last minute AND the conference committee members were removed. Does this typically happen or was this an unusual occurrence?

    • garyhooser says:

      It is fairly common. Sometimes it is routine as the item pulled might have been duplicative and included in another bill. There are also times when one side or another just does not want the bill to pass, perhaps it was “traded” for another bill. Perhaps there was a behind the scenes conversation between House and Senate leadership that is equivalent to “Unless you pass my bill, I will kill yours”…This is why the Conference Committee process is an easy way to mask accountability as you never really know who has made the decision or why.

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