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Fate of education bill rests with conference committee — if Congress can remember how a conference committee works

Conference committees used to be common for landmark pieces of legislation, but lately, they seem like the latest casualty of Washington gridlock.

Since Barack Obama took office, only 24 times has a conference committee convened and successfully achieved its goal.
REUTERS/Jason Reed

WASHINGTON — Getting both chambers of Congress to pass a bill these days is a rare occurrence. But successfully pushing a law through conference committee — where members from both chambers meet to hammer out their bills’ differences — is even rarer.

How rare? Since Barack Obama took office, Congress has passed hundreds of bills, but only 24 times has a conference committee convened and successfully achieved its goal.

And now, Rep. John Kline hopes to make a re-write of federal education law — replacing the Bush-era ‘No Child Left Behind’ law — successful conference number twenty-five. Back in July, both chambers of Congress passed different versions of an education bill, so now Kline will chair a conference committee to resolve the differences.

That is, if Congress can even remember how a conference works.

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In a meeting with reporters shortly after the recess ended, Kline said that the conference has not officially started — in fact, the other members of the conference have yet to be named. He also acknowledged that the relative rarity of the conference committee is a factor in how quickly the process moves, too. “We’re out of practice on conferencing around here,” he said. “We’re relearning the skills. The last time Education and the Workforce had a conference was 2008. We’re pretty rusty.”

For the bill to make it to the president’s desk, Kline will have to navigate what will almost certainly be a contentious conference. It will be comprised of a handful of representatives and senators from both parties, and they will all have to agree on a compromise bill — one that not just their respective caucuses can support, but one the president can get behind, too.

For the moment, the conference appears to have been placed on the backburner as lawmakers returned from the August recess to confront a slew of challenges, including the funding of the government, long-term transportation funding, and the debt limit.

But overall, Kline was optimistic about the ability of the conference to complete its work soon, saying he and the Senate education bill’s sponsor, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, believe they can get something to Obama’s desk by the end of the year.

Enter the election

Thanks to the election 14 months away, however, the two lawmakers face a very tight timeline: presidential election years are dreaded by lawmakers for the chilling effect they can have on ambitious pieces of legislation. “We want to get a bill to the president this year, not this Congress,” Kline said, adding that “presidential campaigns consume everything” and that legislating becomes more difficult the closer Election Day is.

As a large, complicated, and important law, the No Child Left Behind revamp was naturally destined for conference committee, where Congress’ most significant bills tend to go. Landmark bills — the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act,  the original No Child Left Behind Act — all passed through conference committees. In those days, it was a routine procedure, not a rarity.

If the committee is thwarted by Congress’ packed to-do list and presidential politics, it won’t only be a blow for education reform and the would-be reformers. It would be one more piece of evidence for the growing group of people who believe Congress is increasingly unable to accomplish its most important tasks.