Wall Street Journal -
Look for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to try to circumvent the traditional conference committee process by which the different versions of health care reform passed by each house will be reconciled. If so, it will be the latest example of violating principles of transparency and accountability in the single-minded pursuit of legislative victory.
Conferences involving members from both houses are messy things. They are usually conducted in public and often televised, and can produce a compromise version of the bill that leaves rank-and-file members tempted to vote against the final version. That could be perilous in the case of health care since it's likely to pass without a vote to spare in the Senate and the House's version passed by only five votes.
North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, chair of the Budget Committee, has already warned that if the final bill "isn't close to the Senate bill, there will be no way to get the 60 votes here" to shut off debate and pass the final product. But many House members, led by Michigan Rep. John Conyers, are insisting on major changes in the Senate's version.
Mr. Reid and Ms. Pelosi would love to come up with a way to bash heads in private and skip any public discussion that further reveals just how incoherent and unworkable both the bills are. Luckily, there is a subterfuge readily available that wouldn't require the House to swallow the Senate's bill unchanged but also ducks the traditional give-and-take of the conference committee.
When Democrats took over Congress in 2007, they increasingly did not send bills through the regular conference process. "We have to defer to the bigger picture," explained Rep. Henry Waxman of California. So the children's health insurance bill passed by the House that year was largely dumped in favor of the Senate's version. House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel and other Democrats complained the House had been "cut off at the knees" but ultimately supported the bill. Legislation on lobbying reform and the 2007 energy bill were handled the same way -- without appointing an actual conference.
Rather than appoint members to a public conference committee, those measures were "ping-ponged" -- i.e. changes to reconcile the two versions were transmitted by messenger between the two houses as the final product was crafted behind closed doors solely by the leadership. Many Democrats grumbled at the secrecy. "We need to get back to the point where we use conference committees . . . and have serious dialogue," said Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama at the time.
But serious dialogue isn't what Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid are interested in right now. Look for the traditional conference committee to be replaced by a "ping-pong" game in which health care is finalized behind closed doors with little public scrutiny before the bill is rushed to the floor of each chamber for a final vote.