THE PLANK DECEMBER 10, 2009
With the Senate debate over health reform inching closer to an actual vote, attention has naturally turned to what comes next.
You know the civics textbook answer: The House and Senate leadership appoint a a conference committee, with members from both chambers, in order to negotiate a compromise between the two bills. But it doesn't have to work that way.
Sometimes one chamber passes a bill, then sends it directly to the other one for consideration there. In other words, the Senate could pass a bill and then send that legislation over to the House. The House could then approve the bill, word for word, or it could make further modifications, pass a new version, and send it back to the Senate. Then the Senate has the very same choices. I'm told (and I'm a bit fuzzy on this point) the bill can go back and forth like this six times.
The legislative jargon for this is "ping-pong." And lately lots of people on and around Capitol Hill have been suggesting it's the easiest, most logical way to pass health reform. But some of these people also seem to think there will be a "ping" with no "pong." In other words, these people believe the House would get a bill directly from the Senate and pass it, word for word.
Earlier in the week, I asked a senior House aide for an opinion of that scenario: "Total b.s.," the aide responded. Apparently Speaker Nancy Pelosi just said the very same thing, only a little more politely. Via The Hill:
Pelosi dismissed reports that the House would skip a conference committee and pass the Senate version of the bill as unlikely. Asked about the chances of that scenario unfolding, she said, "Not much.
“We would like to see a full conference,” she said.
Now, I wasn't at the press conference, so I don't know the exact wording of the question. But my bet is that Pelosi cares less about convening a formal conference committee per se than she cares about making sure there is a real, substantive negotiation over how to shape the final bill. As I understand it, both chambers might prefer to hold such a negotiation informally, come to agreement about final language, and then hold new votes in each chamber. That'd be ping-ponging, but the House would still get its say over the bill.
Which is how it should be, by the way. For all you may have heard about the alleged superiority of the Senate bill, the fact is that the House is much, much better on the coverage side. It offers more security to more people. It also has a smarter design for the insurance exchanges, which may be the single most important institutional piece of the reform puzzle.
Most experts believe the House bill won't do as much as its Senate counterpart to reduce the cost of medical care over time. But the House bill happens to deal with both the insurance and pharmaceutical industries more aggressively, extracting larger savings from both. And, of course, the House bill has a public option.
There's a compromise version of the two bills that is better than either one individually. But the only way to get that bill is to combine the best of both measures, not letting one dominate over the other.
Of course, it's all moot if the Senate doesn't first pass a bill. And, please don't forget: That hasn't happened yet.
Note: David Waldman of Congress Matters has a nice post on the different ways the two houses tend to work out legislation and why.