Role in the Budget Process
House and Senate hold a conference when there are differences in a bill as passed in the House and Senate. Members are appointed to the conference, with instructions, and they negotiate on how to resolve the differences. The conferees report back and the House and Senate vote to accept (or reject) the report of the conference. The decisions of the conference are recorded in the report that results from the proceedings.
The report on the conference between the House and Senate on the appropriations bill is the final word on what Congress intends with the appropriated funds. The report is a document that records the decisions made in the conference process and makes available to other members of Congress and the public the results of the negotiation process between the representatives of the House and Senate. The conference report is preceded by reports from the House and Senate committees, but the final word on Congressional action is the conference report.
The conference report sets forth the appropriations levels in terms of money limits of what can be used by the agency and for what purpose. The report supplements and explains the language of the actual statute which appropriates the funds - the statutory language is usually sparse. Not all directives from Appropriations Committees need to have the force of actual law - agency staff know better than to cross Appropriations. Those who do not learn fast or are gone fast.
The report also establishes additional controls on programs through mechanisms such as "earmarks," language stating the expectations and desires of the Appropriations Committees, limitations on the use of funds, and "across the board" cuts. The report allows Appropriations to set policy in areas where it may not have primary responsibility and to direct agency focus to areas to which it may not wish to direct it.
For example, by increasing funding for grants to states and tribes at the expense of contracts funding, the Appropriations Committee can force the agency's hand since it will have to cut back its contracted support (and what that can buy) and give money to entities over which there is less direct agency control.
Sometimes there is a conflict between the report language and the statutory language of the legislation that establishes and guides programs. In these situations, the agency has a problem. It is between a rock and a hard place. This is when the political aspects of the budget process come to the fore.
To reconcile differences between the House and Senate in order to result in a bill that is approved by both and submitted for the Presidesent's consideration.
The main players in the conference process are the members of the Senate and House who are appointed to the conference. These members have the responsibility for representing the position of their respective chambers, to carry out their instructions, and to obtain ultimate approval and passage of the appropriations bill as agreed to in conference.
Interest groups, including agencies, may attempt to influence the conference process. The conference is the last point in the Congressional process where changes can be incorporated into the appropriations act. It is possible to have incorporated into the final result items that were no included either in the House or Senate versions of the bill.
After the House and Senate have passed bills that differ.
Documents and Links
The report of the conference.