What happens when House and Senate can’t agree? Conference Committees

BY TAYLOR BENNETT, POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB

It’s the final week of the legislative session and both the House and Senate are deep in the process of reviewing bills that were drafted and passed out of the opposite chamber.

That’s got many citizen lobbyists wondering: what happens if one chamber amends a bill, but the other doesn’t agree with how it was amended?

Not to worry, as they do for most things at the Capitol, the legislature has a process for that. In this case, such bills are referred to a conference committee.

Imagine This…

Senate Bill X has passed out of the Senate. Senators were happy with the way that it was drafted and did not amend it at all. It has gone through the committee review process in the House of Delegates. An amendment was made, and the Delegates agreed that the amendment made the bill much better, so they passed it out of the House. At this point a few things may happen:

  • First, the House will report the passage of the bill to the Senate and request their concurrence in the amendments. Meaning that the House is requesting that the Senate agree to the changes that they’ve made. If citizen lobbyists are agreeable to the changes that are made, they can encourage members of the other body to agree to the changes as well. 
  • Next, the Senate will vote on whether or not they agree with the changes that the House has made. If they do agree, the bill moves on to be signed into law by the Governor.
  • At this point, the Senate may also request that the House recede from their amendments or withdraw the amendments that they passed. The House then votes on whether or not to recede from their amendment.
  • Ultimately if the House sticks to the changes they made, and the Senate does not agree to the changes, or refuses to concur, the bill is referred to a conference committee.

 

The Conference Committee Process

Conference committees are usually made up of three Senators and three Delegates who are appointed to the committee by the Speaker of the House or Senate President. They are generally focused on specific topics and are tasked with coming up with a version of the bill that both the House and Senate can agree to. Amendments may be offered and arguments are made for the merits of the bill. If the members of this committee can not come up with a version of the bill that a majority of them will agree to, the bill dies.

If the committee passes a version of the bill, it is then reported back to the House and Senate where their concurrence is again requested. If both chambers agree, the bill can move on to the Governor’s desk.

What This Means for Citizen Lobbyists

It’s important to remember that a positive outcome from a conference committee review is never a certainty. Bills that go to a conference committee may be rejected entirely, perhaps even more often than a collaborative resolution is reached. In other cases, the version of a bill that is passed out of a conference committee might be very different from the bill that a citizen lobbyist was advocating for.

As a result, citizen lobbyists may try their hardest to work with legislators to develop amendments that everyone can live with. If consensus can be reached between everyone involved and the bill can be kept out of a conference committee, so much the better. 

In some cases, it may even be advantageous for citizen lobbyists to accept amendments that they’re not fond of, simply to be sure that the bill won’t die should a conference committee fail to come to an agreement on it.

In these final days of the session, conference committees will play a pivotal role in determining whether or not a disagreement between the House and Senate spells the end of a bill or a revision that will send it across the finish line.

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