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'Ping Pong' Method Increased Under Dem Control

As House leaders meet today to discuss their priorities in the upcoming negotiations with the Senate on reconciling the two health care reform bills, controversy is growing over the reported decision to bypass a conference committee and instead hold informal talks out of the public eye. Although the "ping pong" practice is nothing new, a recent report showed its use drastically increased when Democrats reclaimed power in Congress.

In the 109th Congress (2005-2006), the last under GOP control, the House and Senate reconciled major bills through a conference committee 18 of 19 times, according to a report by congressional scholar Don Wolfensberger that was cited in an August 2008 Congressional Research Service analysis of the committee process. In the 110th (2007-2008), major bills were reconciled in conference just 11 of 19 times -- meaning Democrats negotiated eight times as many bills outside of conference as their Republican predecessors.

"While the conference bypass approach is just as legitimate under the rules as going to conference (and sometimes advisable when there are only minor differences to iron out), the procedure is more suspect when used on major bills on which numerous substantive disagreements exist between the houses," Wolfensberger wrote in his April 2008 column, printed in Roll Call.

Wolfensberger notes that Republicans were "not entirely blameless" for the increase in out-of-conference negotiations when they transitioned to the minority, but the point was that "the lack of conference deliberations shuts out majority and minority Members alike from having a final say on important policy decisions."

Skipping the formality of a conference committee allows Democrats to speed up the process of merging the bills by forgoing the necessary Senate floor procedures required to begin negotiations. The 2008 CRS report offers three reasons for the difficulty in convening a conference committee: the filibuster, increased polarization in the Senate and "the exclusion of minority party conferees from participating in the bicameral bargaining process."

A separate 2007 CRS analysis further describes the process of moving a bill from the Senate to a conference committee:

"There are several opportunities for extended debate and delay on the Senate floor in the process of sending, or trying to send, a bill to conference. Three separate, debatable motions must be made before sending a measure to conference. Other motions, including a motion to instruct conferees, are also in order, and Senators may choose to exercise their right to debate any or all of these motions at length."

Instead, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate simply send amendments back and forth until an accord is reached. Republicans have not always opposed the maneuver, according to Wolfensberger, but now it removes all opportunities for GOP input. Just one Republican in either the House or Senate voted with Democrats upon passage in each chamber.

Of course, Republicans are hardly the only group complaining about the decision to skip committee. House liberals are worried many of their preferences in the House bill may fall by the wayside when leaders merge it with the less progressive Senate bill, which barely passed in late December and therefore has far less wiggle room for modification than the House bill.