Conference Committees: Navigating the Final Step to Passage of Your Bill

by Julie Pelegrin

The second house has amended your bill and returned it to the first house. Now, you have a decision to make. Do you concur with the second house amendments and readopt the bill? Do you reject the second house amendments and request formation of a conference committee? Or, do you reject the second house amendments and adhere to the version you passed in the first house? The fate of your bill may hang on your decision.

For a bill to go to the Governor, it must have passed both the House and the Senate in exactly the same form. If the second house amends your bill, it cannot go to the Governor for signature unless the first house accepts, or “concurs in”, the second house amendments and readopts the bill or unless both houses form a conference committee to create a report that resolves the differences between the two versions.

There is a third option, but it can be risky. You can move for the first house to adhere to its position (i.e., refuse to consider any changes to the bill proposed by the second house). At that point, the second house can choose to recede from its changes and adopt the version of the bill that the first house passed. However, the second house can also choose to adhere to its position (i.e. refuse to consider adopting the first house’s version of the bill). Most often, when the first house adheres to its position and refuses to discuss a compromise, the second house also adheres. If this happens, your bill is dead.

But, let’s assume that you move to reject the second house amendments and request the formation of a conference committee. The conference committee consists of three persons appointed from each house; two majority party members and one minority party member. You, as the bill sponsor, and the bill sponsor in the second house will most likely be named to the conference committee, and you and your second-house counterpart can request the other two members from your respective houses that you would like to see named to the conference committee. The Speaker and the President will each appoint the two majority members from their respective houses, and the Minority Leaders will each appoint the minority members from their respective houses.

Before the conference committee meets, your bill drafter will talk with you about the differences between the first- and second-house versions of your bill. If you have an idea about how you would like to resolve those differences, the drafter can prepare those changes as a draft committee report that you may share with the other conference committee members before the meeting.

The report can address any of the differences between the two versions. But, if you want to address language that was not changed by the second house or an issue that fits within the bill title, but was not included in either version of the bill, you and the second-house sponsor must ask your respective houses for permission to go beyond the scope of the differences between the two versions. To obtain this permission, you must make a motion and the motion must pass by a majority vote. The conference committee can discuss changes that are outside the scope of the differences, but it cannot sign the committee report until both houses have granted permission to go beyond the scope of the differences.

Committee staff will contact you to schedule a time for the conference committee to meet. The date, time, and location for the meeting will be printed in the House and Senate calendars. When the committee meets, the chair of the committee, usually the first-house bill sponsor, will call the committee to order and invite the committee members to discuss, on the record, the disagreements between the two houses. The conference committee usually does not take public testimony, but the chair can choose to allow testimony if it helps the committee in their discussions. After agreeing on wording changes to resolve the differences, the committee may adopt the committee report conceptually or, if the drafter prepared the report in advance of the meeting, may adopt the committee report as written. For the report to pass, a majority of the conference committee members from each house (i.e. two House members and two Senate members) must approve the report. Following adoption of the report, the committee members who voted to approve the report sign it. A committee member who voted against the report and any committee member who missed the meeting may also choose to sign the report.

Depending on the extent of the differences between the houses and the amount of preparation in advance of the meeting, a conference committee meeting may be very short. However, if the differences are extensive or controversial, a conference committee may meet multiple times before it comes to agreement.

Once the report is signed, the drafter turns it in to the front desk of the Senate and of the House. The house that agreed to go to conference committee, usually the second house, acts first on the report. Usually, the second house adopts the report and readopts the bill as amended by the conference committee report. Then the first house also adopts the report and readopts the bill. At that point, your bill is ready for final enrolling and will soon be on its way to the Governor’s desk.

However, either house at this point may choose to adhere to its position, recede from its position, or reject the conference committee report and ask that a second conference committee be formed. Assuming both houses agree to a second conference committee, they will appoint the members of the second conference committee, which may be the same as the first conference committee, and the committee will meet again and attempt to come to another agreement. Only two conference committees can be appointed for a bill. If either house rejects the conference report of the second conference committee, one of the houses will have to recede and adopt the other house’s version, or the bill is dead.

Conference Committee
Graphic based on OLLS chart “How a Bill Becomes Colorado Law”

This article describes how conference committees usually work. There are certain points in the process where either house may move to adhere to its position or recede from its position. The OLLS has prepared charts for the House and Senate explaining the possible actions, in addition to adopting a conference committee report, that each house may take in resolving differences between the houses. If you are interested in reading the legislative rules on conference committees, you can find them at House Rule 36, Senate Rule 19, and Joint Rules 4, 5, 6, 7,and 8.