Conference Committees: Resolving the Last Differences

Jun 2, 2014

Lawmakers aren't chatting about their post-session plans here. They're working out compromises on bills.

Conference committees are where all the action is now, at the end of the session. But just what is a “conference committee”?

“There are bills that, you know, the House and Senate will disagree on and in many cases you can’t get it worked out,” Slidell Representative Kevin Pearson explains, “So a conference committee is selected to try and resolve that.”

Any bill, from the budget to a new type of vanity license plate, can require a conference committee for resolution.

“The Speaker of the House appoints 3 conferees, and the President of the Senate appoints 3 conferees, and they come up with a compromise,” Kenner Senator Danny Martiny says. “Normally it’s the author of the bill, the chairman of the committee where it came from, and somebody who spoke against the bill.”

Representative Pearson says that opposing member is frequently the person who added an amendment that created the disagreement between the chambers.

These aren’t public committee meetings. House and Senate rules both state the conferences are “privileged communication.” They’re not formal, sit-down discussions, either. Martiny says they’re quite casual.

“I wouldn’t say it happens in the men’s room, but I will tell you that normally what happens is, we kind of meet together on the floor and just say, ‘This is what the bill did. This is what we want. Everybody’s in agreement on it. Let’s go with it’.”

Legislators acknowledge that these casual conversations are where much of Louisiana law is truly made. Martiny and Pearson both say occasionally the conference committees go awry.

“We have such things as what they call a ‘snake alert’, where something comes out of right field and ends up in a conference committee report,” Martiny advises.

“In conference committee, you can pass and make something happen that was never even discussed publicly,” Pearson adds.

Conference committees can become a bit like speed-dating for certain lawmakers on the session’s final day. Often there are too many conferences to keep track of all the details, Martiny observes.

“You know, hopefully we’ll find out between now and August what we actually did.”