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It would seem Congress should simply agree to disagree. However, the United States House of Representatives and Senate must work out their differences in order to get a bill passed and finally sent to the President to sign into law. This is where a conference committee can help the process of getting legislative conflicts cleared up so the making of a new law may occur.
Before the President may receive a bill to sign into law or veto, the bill must first pass in both houses of Congress. If a bill does not pass in exactly the same way in the House and Senate, a conference committee may be requested, made up of Members from both chambers, to come together and work out any differences. Prior to convening a conference committee, amendments may first be offered to try and resolve differences. Either way, the goal is to arrive at a final bill approved by both the House of Representatives and Senate.
Should a bill require a conference committee, the committee must address only the differences between the two chambers. One chamber, or body, say the House, may try to make the process easy by passing a bill as the House would like it, and then send the passed bill to the other body, the Senate. The bill would need to pass in the Senate without amendments.
Another method, for example, to make things simpler, is for the House to take up a bill on the same subject that was passed in the Senate and work out any differences through the House so that passage in the House results in the same bill passed by the Senate. If passage without resolving differences is not possible, however, the bill may be sent to conference. Either chamber may request a conference committee at any point while amendments are in process. Each chamber must formally state its disagreements before a conference committee is designated. Only so many opportunities for amendments are allowed as exchanges of amendments are limited and there are requirements for finalizing parts of the process to resolve policy problems. If policy differences cannot be resolved between the chambers even in conference, the bill dies.
What then is all the fuss about needing identical bills in both chambers, making statements about disagreements, then possibly needing a special committee to work out differences? It is to be sure the warnings of America’s Founders are heeded to keep checks and balances upheld with separation of powers.
While the conference committee process might be tedious, to say the least, it needs to be somewhat cumbersome in order to work out unforeseen problems a bill might cause if rushed through. At times, emergency legislation is necessary to complete faster. Otherwise, the most helpful legislative process to voters is unhurried and wisely examines potential laws moving through Congress without any of them speeding by, missing pitfalls.
America’s Founders were concerned that laws may be pushed through Congress without careful review, or too long and difficult to understand. As James Madison noted in Federalist 62, legislation too long to benefit those it was intended to serve:
“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood;”
In that case, Madison presents a strong case for working out differences through, for example, special discussions set aside to ensure a bill gets the scrutiny it should receive. Legislation should serve to maintain the freedoms of Americans and not entangle them in laws they do not even know they are breaking because there is no way to understand them and they come across convoluted.
“When legislature is corrupted, the people are undone.” – John Adams
The slow and often tiresome processes of Congress come from a long history that America’s Founders seriously considered when designing a new system of government for the new country, and its Constitution as they realized firsthand how difficult it was to escape unchecked power. A weary, exasperated John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail in 1777 during the American Revolutionary War that highlights the importance of weighing decisions with careful deliberation, resolve and eyes on the future:
“Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.”
The Constitution Framers did carefully consider how to maintain a governing system that could stand the test of time. They set the new government up for success by dividing it into three branches, and having a House and Senate to check on each other further aided in ensuring no one system within America’s government would gain too much power:
“All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.” –Article I, Section 1, United States Constitution
Their idea ensured government power in the legislative process would remain in the hands of the people through representation and leadership, rather than tyranny by those sitting in government positions.
Amanda Hughes serves as Outreach Director, and 90 Day Study Director, for Constituting America. She is the author of Who Wants to Be Free? Make Sure You Do!, and a story contributor for the anthologies Loving Moments(2017), and Moments with Billy Graham(forthcoming).
Congressional Research Service – “Conference Committee and Related Procedures: An Introduction”
United States House of Representatives – “The Legislative Process”
Massachusetts Historical Society – “Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 26 April 1777”
John Adams Historical Society: The Official Website – “Quotes”
“Checks and Balances”