The Congressional Institute
1700 Diagonal Road. #730
Alexandria, VA 22314

Phone: (703) 837-8812

The Sausage Factory

The Super Committee: A Unique Legislative Creation

By Mark Strand and Timothy Lang

A joint committee is a group of legislators from both Chambers of Congress. These bodies “have very specific oversight responsibility but negligible legislative authority to create new laws,” according to the Congressional Institute’s Surviving Inside Congress, a guidebook to Capitol Hill for staffers and anyone else interested in the legislative branch.

The new joint committee, however, does have legislative authority. The committee has until November 23 to vote on a piece of legislation to reduce the deficit. If they are able to reach a compromise, both the House and Senate must vote on it, without the opportunity to amend it.

Given the rarity of a joint committee with such legislative power, it is not easy to predict how smoothly the process will go. However, it might be useful to look at conference committees to see how it will unfold.

Conference committees are used when the House and Senate both have passed similar bills but must reach some compromise before they can vote on a single piece of legislation that can then be sent to the President for his approval.  Although they fell out of favor under the Pelosi speakership (there were only two in the 111th Congress), they have historically played key roles in the legislative process. Like joint committees, they have members of both the House and Senate, but, unlike joint committees, they have legislative authority.

The Congressional Institute’s Surviving Inside Congress, provides a glimpse into what happens during the conference committee:

[T]he actual meeting of a conference committee can be the closest thing you’ll find to the knife fight in the motion picture Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—you know the scene, the one where Butch is facing off against a giant of a man and calls time out while they discuss the rules.

“Rules?” the giant demands and looks around at the ring of spectators for confirmation.

“There are no rules in a knife fight.”

“All right,” Butch replies and kicks the giant squarely beneath his belt buckle.

While conference committees are often marked by some of Washing­ton’s best “horse trading,” deliberations sometimes disintegrate into a clash of egos between Senate and House chairmen. This is particularly true when different parties have control of the House and Senate. For the sake of decorum, all this takes place behind closed doors, and in some cases no one on the outside has any idea what the measure under consid­eration will look like until it is sent to the floors of the two Chambers for a vote.

But there are also big differences. The Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction is made up of 12 members, 3 from each party in each Chamber. Conference committees usually are made up of lopsided majorities from the dominant party in each chamber. So right off the bat, we are set up for tense negotiations. Each chamber will have a chair – a Democrat in the Senate and a Republican in the House, but the power of the Super committee’s co-chairs appears to be far more limited than the agenda setting power given to the chairs of a conference committee.

To heighten the problems, the two sides have goals that seem diametrically opposed: the Republicans want to fend off tax increases that they believe will undermine economic growth, and the Democrats want to protect spending on government programs that they believe are necessary to protect citizens against the consequences of the weak economy. And since the federal budget affects everyone, other Members of Congress, lobbyists, foreign agents, and private citizens will want a piece of the action in this unprecedented turf war.

If the members of the Super Committee can reach an agreement, it may not be amended by the general memberships of either chamber. It must pass on a strictly up or down vote – and thus presumably avoids a filibuster in the Senate, but leaves crippling cuts to medical providers and in the national defense as the required alternative to the committee’s proposal.

The Super Committee has until November 23 to produce a bill, the day before Thanksgiving. It is just over three months away, but that really isn’t much time, considering how consequential this legislation is. Will they be able to reach a compromise by then? It is impossible to tell right now—and may even be impossible to tell until late November. One thing is for sure: Don’t expect quiet, peaceful negotiations. And don’t expect to see them either.

For more information on Surviving Inside Congress, please click here. To buy a copy of the second edition, please click here. It is also available as an eBook from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. We anticipate that it will be available on the iTunes bookstore soon. Copies are provided to Congressional staffers free of charge; staff members wishing to obtain copies should send an email from their official Congressional email address to book@conginst.org. The email should include their name, contact information, Member of Congress or committee, and office number.

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

Sign up for email updates