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Disclosure: I'm advising Open Left in a paid capacity on procedure with regard to the Wall Street reform bill, and thought readers at Daily Kos and Congress Matters would be interested in the information as well.

With conference now underway on the Wall Street reform bill, questions loom among the netroots activists following the progress of the legislation. Questions like, for instance, "What's a conference?" And that's a good place to start.

It wasn't always such a good question to start with, though. It used to be kind of a dumb question, because conferences were -- as the preferred method for settling differences between the houses on bills they'd both passed -- so commonplace that only someone who'd never observed the legislative process at all would ever ask it. But these days, conferences are increasingly rare, owing largely to the fact that the procedural motions necessary to establish a conference (and there are three of them: disagreeing to the House bill or amendments; requesting or agreeing to a conference, and; appointing conferees) are each subject to the filibuster. Though it used to be routine practice for the Senate to agree to these motions quickly and often unanimously, partisan divisions (and the Republican policy of slowing down everything they can, in an effort to deny as many successes to Democrats as possible) now make it easier and more manageable to simply bounce amendments back and forth between the houses ("ping pong") and see what sticks.

So, what's a conference? Just what it sounds like. It's an ad hoc committee made up of members of the House and the Senate, appointed to work out the differences between two competing versions of the same bill. They're tasked with producing a conference report (and a "joint explanatory statement," which is also what it sounds like) that contains compromise deals on all disagreements that both houses can pass.

But many of you are already familiar with that, and your interest is, "Is there any way activists can still influence the outcome of the bill?" And the answer to that, as I always say in these matters, is yes and no. Yes, the conference is a critical stage of the legislative process during which enormous changes are still possible. But it's also got to be said that no, grassroots activism is not typically very successful when it comes to influencing conference.

First, a little bit about the first answer (though I suspect you're more interested in the second). What authority do conferees have to change the substance of a bill? It depends on what the differences in the two versions are. If both houses have adopted identical language on some certain provision, then technically that's supposed to be off limits. Since there's no disagreement on that provision, it's not even submitted for the consideration of the conferees, since their job is to resolve differences. And where there are differences and they're very clear (as with amounts of money appropriated for certain projects or functions), conferees are supposed to settle only on a number that's within the range contemplated by the two houses. That is, if the House appropriates $10 million for widgets and the Senate, $20 million, then the conferees are supposed to settle on a number from $10-20 million. Either more or less would "exceed the scope" of the conferees' authority, and subject the conference report to a point of order when it was considered back on the House and/or Senate floors. (But those points of order are not self-enforcing. Someone has to bring them up, and if they don't, well, then everybody looks the other way. Alternatively, points of order may also be waived in the House by rule adopted for governing the debate of the report, and in the Senate by a 3/5 vote.)

But where the differences between the two versions of the bill are not quantitative, or where one bill is silent about something the other bill touches on, things get cloudy. And as transparency buffs (generally speaking), you all know what happens when things get cloudy on Capitol Hill. Anything can happen.

So if anything can happen, why would I say that grassroots activists haven't traditionally been able to influence the outcome of a conference very much? Because conferences are fast-moving, generally obscure, and deal with the real nitty-gritty of legislative language. These are, if you think about it, three things that grassroots organizing has a pretty serious problem dealing with. Conversely, they're conditions in which highly-paid, highly-specialized lobbyists can thrive. Grassroots organizing is slow and depends on building a wave of public consciousness, whereas lobbyists are paid to act quickly and carry the authority to do so on behalf of clients without any of the cumbersome consensus-building that underlies grassroots work. Organizing the public around eye-glazing details in the fine print of legislation? Forget about it! But for lobbyists, it's their bread and butter. The reason they get the big bucks from industry is because the Captains of Industry are willing to pay someone else to have that headache for them.

And remember, TV camera or no TV camera, true dealmaking transparency in a conference or any similar situation is a practical impossibility.

So what, if anything, can netroots activists do to give themselves a chance at influencing a conference outcome?

  1. Be prepared well in advance of conference. Know what you want, what your bottom line is, and what you're willing to give up to get it. Conference is a dealmaking exercise. It's entire purpose is compromise. Members of Congress, in fact, often anticipate conference wheeling and dealing, and sometimes toss provisions into a bill that they intend to use as bargaining chips later on. You never know for sure when an ally who fights to include your favorite position in a bill is really going to go to the mat for it, or is preparing to trade it in conference for something else.
  1. As always, stay in contact with your representatives. If they're on the conference committee (which is usually only the case for the chairs and other top-ranking members of the committees of jurisdiction on the bill), great. If not, urge your reps to work to see your preferred changes made by leaning on conferees. Members can make their wishes known through personal contacts, through letters to the conferees signed by like-minded colleagues, or even motions to instruct conferees offered on the floor -- though none of these (including a floor motion) are actually binding, so there's no way to nail things down with certainty.
  1. Stay aware, and stay vocal. The biggest influence a disparate and generalized group (like netroots activists) can have in the conference environment, short of somehow hiring a lobbyist, is to let Members of Congress see a sustained interest in and understanding of the conference process. When you contact them, demonstrate an awareness of the process by making your asks as specific as possible -- i.e., "please support the inclusion of the Johnsonheimer amendment in the conference report on H.R. 123," as opposed to "vote to protect the environment." That's always good advice, of course, but it's particularly important to be as detailed as possible (and to know what's possible and what's not in the first place) at the conference stage because the whole point of conference is to iron out the details in the finest of the fine print of the bill. Members who aren't involved in the conference are usually on the outside because they don't have an in-depth, personal knowledge of the details of the bill, and they'll be considerably more comfortable making inquiries about it among their colleagues on the inside if they're armed with material that makes it look like they know what they're talking about, and which can elicit specific answers from Members on the inside, rather than a generalized response.

Those are just a couple of general suggestions to start with. I'll be thinking more about it in the coming days, and hopefully you will, too. As some specifics about issues in conference begin to emerge, we'll have more opportunity to deal with them in more concrete terms. But remember, by the time those issues emerge far enough so that those of us on the outside become aware of them, are able to digest them, and suggest a course of action, an army of lobbyists will already have done the same. And in a setting like conference, which can be over in a matter of days (as this one on Wall Street reform is expected to be), that can mean we're working at a distinct disadvantage.

That's the hand we're dealt. But maybe part of our general thinking on this can be about whether and how we might change that.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sat Jun 12, 2010 at 04:46 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  David, on another topic (0+ / 0-)

    I have a diary with tables and bullet points written in Microsoft Word.  Do you know how to convert Microsoft Word tables to diary format without typing in the HTML codes?  Thanks.

    I found a moonrock in my nose. - Ralph Wiggum

    by jim bow on Sat Jun 12, 2010 at 05:03:16 PM PDT

  •  It is ominous that no event has yet made a demand (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassandra77, DocGonzo, david78209

    that our electeds cannot ignore.

    I keep hoping that Volcker will prevail, but I am not optimistic. Banks should simply be severed from stock trading, and let the chips fall where they may. Then regulate the remains into oblivion. This has to start somewhere. All bets should be taken off the table.

    It's called creative destruction. Receivership would be a just fate for the idiots who ran the system into the ground.

    $600 trillion of CDS? Ten Years worth of worldwide GDP? Send the paper to Greenspan, and let him pay for it!

    One credit repo specialist told me that he'd just ask for the books, the checkbooks and the keys to the places and then he'd tell the CEO's to take a hike - barring so much as one word to a single employee under threat of Federal sanctions. Overnight, the places of business would be orderly taken over, the pensions and investments carefully distributed to the the rightful employees under immediate bankruptcy protection, usually chapter 11. Occasionally, FBI would wait outside to make arrests - more often, just to show their interest.

    Once the CEO idiots were off the scene, these companies rapidly came back to orderly operations, but sometimes not.

    "They only call it class war when we fight back!" [h/t buhdydharma] MORE AND BETTER DEMOCRATS IN 2010!!

    by ezdidit on Sat Jun 12, 2010 at 05:19:34 PM PDT

  •  Open Source Politics (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Psyche, Cassandra77, ezdidit

    Disclosure: I'm advising Open Left in a paid capacity on procedure with regard to the Wall Street reform bill, and thought readers at Daily Kos and Congress Matters would be interested in the information as well.

    Thank you to Open Left for sharing the report it paid you to produce. And thank you for producing and sharing it.

    That is exactly the spirit of "open source" that has revolutionized computer software (eg. the Web), and which should be revolutionizing politics as well. The spirit of Daily Kos, too: share it if you've got it.

    "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - HST

    by DocGonzo on Sat Jun 12, 2010 at 05:19:42 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for clarifying all of this for us. (0+ / 0-)

    I would have been one of those who asked:  "What's a conference?"
    It just seems like our government ran a lot smoother before the "Contract on America" folks rolled in.  If the average person understood how little the republicans cared about them and how much their agenda involved getting into and staying into power, they'd never vote republican.

    "It's not just the premiums - It's those high deductibles and out-of-pockets."

    by Cassandra77 on Sat Jun 12, 2010 at 05:25:08 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for the explication, David (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    david78209

    I'm quite interested in this inasmuch as my congressman, Gary Peters, was named by Nancy Pelosi to sit on the conference committee, a real coup for a freshman.  We think the world of Peters here, and look forward to his continued success within the caucus.

    •  So lobby the hell out of him! (0+ / 0-)

      And David, what would you suggest as 'bottom line' things to hold out for at all costs?  

      We're all pretty strange one way or another; some of us just hide it better. "Normal" is a dryer setting.

      by david78209 on Sat Jun 12, 2010 at 06:05:00 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  are there links to narratives on prior (0+ / 0-)

    conference committees with respect to complete information about actions and processes? I say this thinking that what is in official records and what is unofficial in terms of negotiation/lobbying is largely undocumented except in the texts produced by congressional scholars/academics. Can what you suggest above be extended to liveblog/twitter without compromising the process or does partisanship force information into open and closed realms that would require bureaucratic actions like FOIA requests that obviate timeliness and information value?

    "...calling for a 5" deck gun is not parody. Not by a long shot." (gnaborretni)

    by annieli on Sat Jun 12, 2010 at 05:56:33 PM PDT

    •  I don't know of any. (0+ / 0-)

      If I understand your question correctly, that is. Narratives on prior conferences? I don't think so.

      Frankly, no one's really been terribly interested before. And when they see it on TV, they'll likely remember why.

  •  If deals are made in secret why is conference not (0+ / 0-)

    televised? IF nothing happens in conference then what is the big deal? Let them show off their canned conference proceedings.

    •  Would that just slow things down? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Psyche

      I'd worry it might just turn the conference committee proceedings into something as stultifying as what's flatteringly called 'floor debate' in the House.  Then they'd meet in private to do the horse trading.  

      I know, that's a cynical answer, despairing of hope for more transparency in the process.

      We're all pretty strange one way or another; some of us just hide it better. "Normal" is a dryer setting.

      by david78209 on Sat Jun 12, 2010 at 06:10:18 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  are we ever privy to these in real time? (0+ / 0-)

    As always, stay in contact with your representatives. If they're on the conference committee (which is usually only the case for the chairs and other top-ranking members of the committees of jurisdiction on the bill), great. If not, urge your reps to work to see your preferred changes made by leaning on conferees. Members can make their wishes known through personal contacts, through letters to the conferees signed by like-minded colleagues, or even motions to instruct conferees offered on the floor -- though none of these (including a floor motion) are actually binding, so there's no way to nail things down with certainty.

    "...calling for a 5" deck gun is not parody. Not by a long shot." (gnaborretni)

    by annieli on Sat Jun 12, 2010 at 06:05:09 PM PDT

  •  Thanks David! (0+ / 0-)

    As usual, both informative and good advice for us in the roots who are always seeking effective ways to infuence legislation.

    "Some men see things as they are and ask, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and ask, 'Why not?"

    by Doctor Who on Sat Jun 12, 2010 at 07:50:09 PM PDT

  •  Sounds like a typical game of poker. n/t (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tropical Depression

    "They pour syrup on shit and tell us it's hotcakes." Meteor Blades

    by JugOPunch on Sat Jun 12, 2010 at 08:13:07 PM PDT

  •  Staff do most of the conference off camera anyway (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    David Waldman

    The reality is that the members mostly only consider the big issues that can't be resolved at the staff level.  The staff are often deeply specialized in the nuts and bolts of the legislation.  Staff may have pre-conferenced some aspects of the legislation.  

    Inside the conferences issues are listed in working documents, and broken into every open issue.  Staff often reach agreement on many of these issues, and though these "closed" items are not final until they're part of a package agreed to by the members of Congress, this staff level is where most issues begin and end.  These agreements are reached in formal staff-level meetings, but these would never be televised.  And a fair number of the agreements are really reached in informal meetings, phone calls, and e-mails between the principal staff.  

  •  We will get the same corporate bill (0+ / 0-)

    in WSR as we got in health care, funding the wars, and every place else we look.  This group is the reincarnation of the Clinton and Bush administrations.

    The unions and netroots are right.  They have to be able and willing to hurt this group of corportists, if they/we are ever going to get enough power to change anything.  

    In 06, I learned to zip my wallet.  In 09/10, I learned I was wasting my breath with emails and phone calls.  They will do as they please unless I'm rich and offering them money.  In 12, my lesson will be to vote third party.  I'm done being used.

    They're asking for another four years -- in a just world, they'd get 10 to 20. ~~ Dennis Kucinich

    by dkmich on Sun Jun 13, 2010 at 03:25:40 AM PDT

  •  Financial Reform (0+ / 0-)

    Are brokerages spying on - and trading against - their own clients? Read "My Life Versus Mrs. Blankfein's Diamond Earrings"  http://wp.me/...

    If you find it intriguing, please pass it on to friends who are politicians, regulators, business leaders, or my fellow journalists.

    Thank you.

    (Dr. Ellen Brandt is founder of the Media Revolution and Centrists groups at Linked In and the Centrists, Boomer Network, and Ivy League Twibes at Twitter. She was the long-time business editor of a major US women's magazine.)

  •  Conference committees, to me, have always seemed (0+ / 0-)

    like the Cardinals going into conclave to vote for a Pope.  Even the trial balloon process from conferees morphs into a ritual that becomes, in this context, more like smoke signals.  The rabble just sits and watches.  

    Thanks for an excellent, informative essay.  

    "Well, yeah, the Constitution is worth it if you can succeed." -Nancy Pelosi, 6/29/07.

    by nailbender on Sun Jun 13, 2010 at 02:14:20 PM PDT

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