To hear congressional Democrats tell it, this is the beginning of the end of democracy. Republicans hold only slim majorities in the House and the Senate, yet when it comes to the task of writing legislation, they tend to keep it to themselves.
Democrats can do little but complain. And complain they have, with increasing frequency in recent weeks.
"Just when you think you have seen it all, just when you think [Republicans] have crossed the line in terms of abuse of power by manipulation of the rules, they have now just torn up the rule book," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., complained to reporters recently, regarding the Republicans' handling of legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. "You never know with the Republicans. As I say, just when you think you have seen it all, the abuse of power
gets even more abusive."
For his part, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has contended that the GOP effort to elbow out the Democrats "makes a mockery of the legislative process, and it certainly minimizes the role of every United States senator."
All year long, Democrats have consistently complained of GOP attempts to limit their influence. But Democratic ire has reached the boiling point this fall, as Republicans have been driving to rack up some major legislative accomplishments before adjourning for the year. Democrats are particularly incensed that they have largely been excluded from House-Senate conference committee deliberations on Medicare prescription drug benefit legislation and on the energy bill.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has challenged the legitimacy of the discussions. "No Democrats have been invited to the conference," Hoyer said. "No conferences as we know them have been held."
A core group of 10 Republicans and two centrist Democrats -- Senate Finance Committee ranking member Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Sen. John Breaux, D-La. -- have been negotiating the final Medicare bill. The remaining five Democratic conferees haven't been invited to participate in the real decision-making.
For the energy bill, 34 Republicans and 24 Democrats serve on the conference committee. But the negotiations have mostly been conducted by the two chief GOP chairmen -- House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici,
R-N.M. -- although the ranking member on Domenici's panel, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., has attended some meetings.
Back in July, when Republicans resorted to pushing a Democratic energy bill through their deadlocked chamber just to get to conference, Domenici made no bones about his intentions. "I'm happy, because I'll be rewriting that bill" in conference, Domenici said at the time. "It's up to us. We're in the majority, and we'll be writing a completely new bill."
In the Democrats' view, the Medicare and energy negotiations aren't the only examples of Republicans abusing conference committees. House Democrats also objected when Republicans waived House rules and made changes to the FAA authorization conference report without even a perfunctory conference meeting.
Senate Democrats are now threatening to filibuster the FAA conference report over the fact that Republicans removed language, passed by both chambers, preventing the administration from contracting out air traffic control jobs.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member James Oberstar, D-Minn., lamented that when the FAA conference met in July for the first and only time, Republicans provided Democrats with only a bill summary -- and no details about the controversial "privatization" proposal. "There were opening statements and then no paper," Oberstar said. "It is the most unusual experience I have had in 24 years serving as a conferee, [and in] my 29 years in Congress. [It was the] first time I have been a conferee where we didn't have paper in front of us [and] legislative language to discuss."
Last month, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a fairly reliable business ally, refused to provide the one vote the Republicans needed to win passage of a bill to curb class-action lawsuits. She said she did not have confidence that her concerns with the
legislation would be addressed in conference. "Once this bill leaves the Senate floor, Democrats have no bargaining power," Landrieu said in an interview shortly after the vote. "We're not invited to any conferences, so how could I have any assurances
[that Republicans] would not go overboard?"
Because few rules govern conference committees, Republican leaders have considerable leverage in determining the agenda and deciding how much to include Democrats. Ultimately, the main requirement is that a simple majority of each chamber's conferees sign off on the final conference agreement -- meaning that Republicans could have the necessary votes without any support from Democrats.
To vent their frustration, Democrats have had to resort to publicity stunts and parliamentary foot-dragging. On October 30, House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and a dozen committee Democrats protested their exclusion from the Medicare bargaining by crashing a conference meeting.
"I came there to say [to Republicans], 'Listen, we don't know what you're doing. How can we screw up anything worse than what we're reading in the papers?' " Rangel said. "Let us know what the problems are. Maybe we can talk to somebody."
Under Pelosi and Hoyer, House Democrats this year have used the few legislative procedures available to them much more aggressively than did their predecessors. They frequently call for time-consuming nuisance votes on the House floor in order to
gum up the works and demonstrate their displeasure with how Republicans are running things. On October 30, for instance, Democrats insisted on at least a half-dozen floor votes on "motions to adjourn." Democrats have also scored several
symbolic victories this year by offering motions that instruct conferees to adopt a specific position in final House-Senate negotiations.
Senate Democrats are using another tactic to protest their treatment: objecting to sending bills to conference at all. In recent days, Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., has repeatedly objected to the Senate's going to conference with the House on legislation encouraging charitable giving and on a wildfire-prevention measure that allows greater forest-thinning. Daschle has challenged Republicans to seek other avenues to reconcile bills with the House, such as holding informal negotiations between the parties before calling a conference, or sending the Senate version of a bill over to the House and letting the House vote on that version.
In response to all of the Democratic dissension, GOP leaders counter that their conduct of conference committees this fall is nothing new. Republicans explain that they are only trying to get their work done in the most efficient way, and that they
will include Democrats in the end.
"It is not unusual to have discussion groups, meetings with all kinds of different people, as conference recommendations are being put together for a formal conference meeting," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said on the House floor recently.
"I can assure [Democrats] that on the Medicare bill and on the energy bill, formal conferences will be held before those bills come to the floor in the form of a conference report," DeLay said. "But just to make this place work, there have to be
a lot of meetings, and there is a lot of time spent together with a lot of people to get these big bills put together."
Echoing this sentiment, a top Senate Republican aide said that including too many Democrats in a conference would be an obstacle to getting bills finished. The aide conceded that perhaps Democrats "have not been as involved as they would like
Still, when asked recently whether he could give Democrats assurance that their concerns would be addressed in order to move forward on legislation, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum, R-Pa., did not appear ready to make any new concessions. "I'm not going to give them assurance that they're going to write the bill," Santorum said.
During a hearing this summer, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., noted that Democrats ruled the House with a tight grip for 40 years until Republicans won the majority in 1994. "It is a tug-of-war that is as old as party
divisions in the House," Dreier said. "When Democrats controlled the House, their leaders found reason to limit debate, modify rules, and control the time of the House in order to get the business of the nation done.... We couldn't get debate time. Many times, we even couldn't get copy machines or bathroom keys."
Likewise, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said that majority control of conferences has always been the way Congress operates. "It's exactly how the Republicans were treated" under Democratic majorities, Lott said. "The very idea
they would object to appointing conferees on Healthy Forests [legislation] at a time when we have this huge burn in California is totally irresponsible. I don't think they can continue that position. It's just not credible."
Lott said Democrats are making hay over nothing. In a conference, he said, "you can go through group meetings, but sooner or later, you whittle the objectionable features down to a few. It always gets down to a few people at the top."