Forget conference committees, any observer of health care reform needs to add the term “ping-pong” to their legislative vocabulary.
Ping-pong is a little known but increasingly used procedural device to pass legislation. A 2008 report by Walter Oleszek for the Congressional Research Service describes ping-pong as “the exchange of amendments between the houses”
It works like this:
PING: House passes a bill and sends to the Senate.
PONG: Senate amends the bill and sends it back to the House.
PING: House accepts the Senate amendment and sends bill to the President.
Sometimes the ping-pong match goes on for multiple rounds, as the House and Senate exchange amendments back and forth until either one chamber caves or compromise language is reached.
Walter Oleszek’s CRS report noted that pingpongs outnumbered conference committees by a 2-1 ratio in 1994, but went up to a 4-1 ratio by 2008.
Earlier this year, SCHIP legislation signed into law by President Obama (H.R. 2) was handled via the ping-pong method. The House passed a bill, the Senate amended it, the House concurred in the Senate amendment and the bill went to the President. Click here for the legislative play-by-play of the SCHIP ping-pong.
There are 2 procedural advantages of the ping-pong method:
1. No conference committee. Ping pong is a take it or leave it proposition. There is no conference committee, so there is no opportunity for compromises to be struck (or nettlesome provisions removed) by a handful of conferees picked by the leadership.
2. No motion to recommit. Bills can be sent back to the committee of juridiction from whence they came. These bills are recommitted with instructions to make certain substantive changes in the bill. Usually, motions to recommit are efforts by the minority party to attach controversial provisions to a bill, forcing the majority to either kill the bill or force vulnerable lawmakers into taking a difficult vote. Since an amendment does not originate in committee, it cannot be re-committed.
Ping-pong often plays a role in controversial legislation. During the 110th Congress, energy legislation was under consideration that would tax windfall profits on oil companies and use the proceeds to develop renewable energy. Republicans wanted to offer a motion to recommit on the bill to allow offshore oil drilling. Democrats wanted to avoid taking a vote on the issue. So the Senate amended House legislation and sent it back to the lower chamber. After a couple of rounds of ping pong, the House adopted the Senate amendment and the bill was signed into law.
What does this mean for health care?
The two touchiest items in the health care debate are now the public option and the Stupak Amendment. The House bill contains both. It is highly likely that the Senate will take up the House bill (H.R. 3962) and gut it from top to bottom, replacing the entire bill with a massive Baucus amendment containing whatever Senate compromise gets hammered out behind closed doors.
On the Senate floor, there will be amendments to the Baucus amendment – amendments for a robust public option, amendments to add the Stupak language, etc. These amendments will likely be subject to a 60 vote threshold, meaning that they will fail. So the Baucus amendment will remain largely intact when it goes back to the House for an up or down vote. Then it will go to the president.