Conference calls a rare occurrence

New experience for nearly half of technology competition conferees

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., talks with Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., before the conference committee on industrial competitiveness and technology manufacturing legislation on Thursday, May 12, 2022.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., talks with Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., before the conference committee on industrial competitiveness and technology manufacturing legislation on Thursday, May 12, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 24, 2022 at 6:00am, Updated at 7:00am

Corrected 4:04 p.m. | When 81 members of the House and 26 senators met on May 12 to start negotiating differences between the House and Senate takes on technology competition bills, it was the first time in 17 months a conference committee met.

Forty-six of the conferees are new to the process. Among them are nine House members and six senators who have been in office for more than a decade.

40 House conferees (40%) on the competition bill haven't served on a conference committee before. Six haven't been on one for a decade or longer.

Conference committees have largely gone out of style, dropping from 66 in the 104th Congress (1995-96) to just three in the last Congress. In recent years, it has been more common for legislative differences between the two chambers to be hashed out by ping-ponging amended bills back and forth or by leadership cutting deals behind closed doors.

In 2020, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., took to the Senate floor and lamented the lack of debate and legislative effort.

“I have been here for the last two years. We haven’t debated any legislation of substance here … Legislation is just kind of grinding to a halt,” he said. “Some of that is because the House is of a different party, and it is difficult to pass a law when you have different parties in charge of the House and the Senate, but there aren’t a lot of conference committees happening, and there aren’t a lot of attempts to reconcile our differences.”

The number of conference reports filed in a given congress has steadily fallen, from 66 in the 104th Congress in 1995-96 to just three in the last Congress. The 117th is only on their first, with just a little more than 6 months left.

Although Democrats subsequently won the slimmest of Senate majorities, the unified Democratic Congress has failed to result in more conference committees. The 117th Congress is actually behind the pace of the 116th, which could claim two successful conference committees by this point. If this Congress doesn’t complete this one and cram a couple more into the next six months, it will set a new low.

This report was corrected to accurately reflect comment by Sen. Christopher S. Murphy.