Yesterday in Washington, the House and Senate Conference Committee held its first public meeting on the surface transportation authorization bill. While the Senate passed a two year bill, S 1813 or MAP-21, that contained hundreds of pages of policy changes to current law, the House only passed a shell bill that extends current programs for 90 days from June 30 to September 30. The policy changes included in the House bill were approval of the Keystone pipeline and regulatory streamlining provisions which differ from the Senate. Before lawmakers can move to negotiating the specifics outside those two issues – which will be very controversial themselves – they will need to agree on what is the scope of the actual conference committee.
Here is an explanation of the issue from the policy analysis publication TRANSPORTATION WEEKLY:
Senate conferees are expected to insist on the narrow definition of the scope of the conference - the difference between the bill that the House actually passed (H.R. 4348) and the Senate amendment in the nature of a substitute (the text of the bill S. 1813 as passed by the Senate on March 14). This means that, except for the differing environmental streamlining portions of both bills (the 70 pages of title VI of H.R. 4348 and the 53 pages of subtitle C of title I of Division A of the Senate amendment), the scope of the conference, as far as surface transportation policy provisions go, is between the Senate amendment and existing law (titles 23 and 49, United States Code, as well as provisions of the SAFETEA-LU law).
House Republican conferees are expected to disagree and insist on a more expansive scope of the conference - saying that they are there to iron out differences between the 979-page Rules Committee Print of H.R. 7 and the 1,674-page Senate amendment, even though the House never actually passed H.R. 7….
But in most previous instances where conference committees agreed to pretend that they were conferencing bills that did not actually pass one chamber or the other, the main reason that a chamber did not pass a real bill was because they simply ran out of time. In this case, the Speaker of the House has publicly admitted that a majority of the House would have voted "no" on final passage of H.R. 7, had that bill ever come up for a vote. (Speaker Boehner told reporters on April 18 that, "If I had my druthers, H.R. 7 would have been on the floor six weeks ago. But there weren’t 218 votes to do this.")
Boehner's unusual (and possibly unprecedented, in this context) statement undercuts the position that House conferees are expected to take (that the provisions of H.R. 7 should be considered to be the will of the House and that H.R. 7, not current law, should be the House position, even though the House never could muster the will to pass H.R. 7).….
This conceptual disagreement - over whether the House position on most surface transportation provisions is H.R. 7, or existing law - prevents the staff of the various committees from doing what is always the first work assignment in any conference - preparing a "side-by-side" conference document that, both sides agree, shows the corresponding House and Senate positions next to each other. House Republican conferees want a document that shows every paragraph of H.R. 7 next to the corresponding paragraph of S. 1813 (where the bills have corresponding provisions). Senate conferees prefer a document that shows every paragraph of S. 1813 next to the corresponding paragraph of H.R. 4348, or where H.R. 4348 is silent, to existing law.
It is hard to imagine the conference committee making much progress in a public meeting when the two chambers cannot agree on whether they are there to compare apples and oranges, or to compare apples and potatoes.
We will continue to keep you posted on this issue. If you have any questions, contact Jon Moran at 609-695-3481, ext. 121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
William G. Dressel, Jr.