Rep. Nita Lowey (D) NY, and Sen. Richard Shelby (R) Alabama. The behind-the-scenes folks leading bipartisan efforts to get a border security deal together

The Committee That’s “Wasting Their Time”

According To The President…

Let’s take a look at the conference committee tasked with hammering out a border deal in the next couple of weeks that both Democrats and Republicans (though not necessarily Trump) can live with.

The President keeps incorrectly referring to them as “The Homeland Security Committee”. When in fact, none of the members of the House Homeland Security Committee or the Senate Homeland Security Committee is on this special committee. And there’s a purpose to that

Whom did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi choose to participate? It’s interesting, though not at all surprising: all of the members on the conference committee are drawn from the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, with special emphasis on lawmakers who are also on Homeland Security appropriations subcommittees.

What does that mean? Appropriations committees do exactly what they sound like they do: they specify what money gets spent where. Since the Constitution gives Congress as one of its main jobs, management of the country’s spending (what’s called “the power of the purse”), seats on appropriations committees are considered prestigious and powerful. The President requests what he’d like to see in a budget every year, but it’s Congress that ultimately decides what gets in, and the appropriations committees decide how it gets spent.

Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution explains it this way:

No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

(Of course, that was before Congress gave the President a lot of “emergency powers”, but that’s a story for another day.)

So in other words, appropriation committee people are the nuts-and-bolts folks, not the extremists and zealots, for the most part.

Which means of any group in Congress, they’ve probably got the best shot at delivering on their aim: constructing a border security funding package — with or without a wall — optimally by the end of this week (although they’ve still technically got two weeks), so the House and Senate have a week to wrangle over it, and vote on it, and get it to the President’s desk, before the clock clicks down into a new shutdown.

Let’s rewind a little and take a look at some of the procedures and players involved. (Sometimes Capitol Hill reporters start off already so deep into a story they assume people know how all the stuff in the background works, and who’ll be showing up for it. Or else they don’t care as long as the politicians get the job done, or don’t. We felt the need to refresh ourselves on this particular process, so we figured we’d take you along.)

First of all, what is a conference committee? Here’s how the glossary on the webpage of the U.S. Senate explains it:

A temporary, ad hoc panel composed of House and Senate conferees which is formed for the purpose of reconciling differences in legislation that has passed both chambers. Conference committees are usually convened to resolve bicameral differences on major and controversial legislation.”

So it’s a very common gathering that pretty much has to happen as part of the process any time a bill is passed, since both the House and Senate have to pass it in order to deliver it to the President, and they often have slightly or vastly different ideas of what should be in it.

This conference committee is unusual in that it’s reactive, and operating with a ticking clock in a highly politically charged environment.

Which is why it’s probably fair to characterize the composition of this 17-member committee as many of the people in Congress who know how to wield their power quietly. For example: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is not on the committee. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy is.

No one on the conference committee is a newbie to Capitol Hill. The most senior (Sen. Leahy) has served in federal office for nearly 5 decades.

So who’s on it exactly?

Democrats (9):

Republicans (8)

You may have noticed there are actually more Democrats than Republicans on the conference committee, reflecting Democrats’ recent strong win in the House in the midterms. But that one-person advantage in this case probably doesn’t matter that much, since they’re not likely to produce anything that House and Senate leaders don’t think will pass in their respective chambers. In other words, anything they come up with will almost have to be something enough legislators of both parties are sure to be on board with to pass, though (as we said at the top) not necessarily the President. If the House and Senate really want to take a stand against shutdowns, then they’ll try to come up with something that can pass with veto-proof majorities both in the Republican-controlled Senate, and the Democratically-controlled House. Is that possible? Anything’s possible.

That also again explains why it’s being worked on exclusively by these appropriations folks, who are billed by both their parties as deal-makers, not ideologues.

We’ll repeat how Alabama Republican Richard Shelby who is on the committee recently put it. If the President, et. al.:

“Would let us, the appropriators, do our job, we could do this.”

One person who possibly might have a strong ideological stake (beyond general party differences) in the mix may be Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. Back in 2001, Durbin and recently retired Republican Orrin Hatch introduced the “DREAM Act”. It would’ve allowed undocumented immigrants who came as children to stay in the U.S., and give them a path to citizenship. It never was able to get through both the House and Senate. The current DACA program was established by an Executive Order by President Obama, and does not provide a path to citizenship. Durbin tried again in 2017, this time with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (yes the same Lindsey Graham who’s now advocating for Trump to invoke emergency powers to build his wall). But that legislation did not pass either. And anyway, Trump moved to kill the program, and then use the DACA kids as a bargaining chip in order to get his wall. (As we’ve pointed out many times, he’s tried for a long time to get Democrats to give him his wall in exchange for a problem he himself created). Of course, there’s no guarantee DACA will (or won’t) be part of the conference committee’s ultimate proposal.

At the same time, Republicans haven’t really been anti-Immigration across the board before Trump came along. Nor have they been particularly pro-wall even after Trump arrived (they had 2 years where they controlled the House, Senate, and the White House, and still did not pass wall funding). A lot of that has to do with the fact that big business wants a steady supply of reliable workers they don’t have to pay much to, in order to grow. That’s why ultra-Conservative political donors like the Koch brothers support many of the immigration measures Trump opposes. (Heck, even Trump hired undocumented workers at his clubs). Many Republicans in Congress these days — even though it’s not in fashion to show it publicly — rode to Washington on a wave of Koch and Conservative PAC money, and behind closed doors, they may be more willing to play ball than a lot of people think, as long as Democrats are willing to take the hits that the President is sure to dish out.