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Gotta Love Those Conference Committees

A couple stories of mischief by conference committees (the guys who reconcile differing House and Senate versions of a bill) have come to my attention lately. First, a post by MBW of Wampum brings this to my attention:

Indians Irate At Change Of Language In Spending Bill

Language inserted in an Interior Department spending bill may force lawmakers to choose between urgently needed funds to battle wildfires and delaying a federal court-ordered accounting of billions of trust fund dollars that American Indians say have been misplaced.

... opponents of such an accounting have pointed in part to studies showing it would cost taxpayers an estimated $9 billion to $12 billion to retrace and verify all the transactions for every account.

It is against this backdrop and the backdrop of catastrophic wildfires this year in California and Arizona that a Senate-House conference committee has quietly inserted the language into the Interior Department bill delaying the court-ordered accounting by a year, to Dec. 31, 2004.

(A slight tangent: If we can afford $87 billion to help the people whose country we invaded in 2003, surely we can find $9-12 billion to help the people whose country we invaded in 1607.)

The second incident relates to my commentary from this week, linked in the post below. When I wrote it, I was optimistic that the measure to essentially lift the ban on travel to Cuba (by denying the funds to enforce it) would pass Congress, since both the House and Senate had voted yes to a transportation funding bill that included the Cuba language. Then I encountered this report, which suggests that the conference committee will dump the Cuba measure to spare President Bush the embarassment of having to veto.

I'll admit to mixed feelings on the rules of legislative procedure. On the one hand, I know that laws are often more than the sum of their parts, and thus I'm skeptical about procedures (like the line-item veto) that would treat bills as just collections of clauses. On the other hand, I hate the strategy of attaching riders to unrelated bills. (Incidentally, I also hate the strategy of "repealing" a law by denying funding to enforce it. So the Cuba measure has two procedural strikes against it in my book despite achieving a worthwhile end.) So while I don't like artificially restraining conference committees from crafting a bill that works as a whole, surely there must be some standard about not dropping language passed by both houses, and not inserting entirely new language?


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