Senate Conferees: Their Selection and Authority
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
onference committees usually prepare the final versions of the most important bills that
Congress approves. Who the conferees are and what decisions they can make, therefore, 1
can have an important effect on the outcome of the legislative process. This report C
describes the selection and authority of Senate conferees. For more information on legislative
process, see http://www.crs.gov/products/guides/guidehome.shtml.
The Senate takes three steps whenever it wants to go to conference with the House. First, the
Senate either insists on its own position or disagrees to the House’s position on the bill in
question. Second, the Senate either requests a conference with the House or agrees to such a
request that the House already has made. And third, the Senate decides how it will select its 2
Most often, the Senate takes all three steps at once, by unanimous consent, and, immediately
thereafter, the presiding officer names the Senate conferees. However, any Senator can insist that
each step be taken separately. In that case, the Senate can take each step by agreeing to a
debatable motion, if unanimous consent cannot be obtained.
In practice, the Senate almost always agrees by unanimous consent that the presiding officer be
authorized to appoint the Senate’s conferees. If the Senate chose not to give this authority to the
presiding officer, the Senate could elect its conferees instead. Senate Rule XXIV provides for the
election of the members and chairs of standing committees, and states further that all other
committees shall be appointed in the same way, unless the Senate decides otherwise. It has been
many years since the Senate actually elected conferees, and it is precisely because such a process
could become so complicated and time-consuming that the Senate regularly delegates this
authority to its presiding officer.
Although the Senate authorizes the presiding officer to name conferees, the presiding officer
actually exercises no discretion. Instead, he or she presents to the Senate a list that usually has
been prepared by the chair and ranking minority member of the standing committee with
jurisdiction over the bill. Usually also, the Senate conferees are drawn exclusively from the
membership of that committee. The committee chair, in consultation with the ranking member,
normally decides on the number of Senators from each party who will serve on the conference
committee. The chair selects the majority party conferees, and the ranking minority member
selects a proportional number of conferees from among his or her committee colleagues.
Committee seniority is an important but not controlling factor in the selection of committee
members to serve on the conference.
In some cases, the party leaders also become involved in the selection of conferees. For example,
when two or more committees considered the same bill and will be represented on the conference
committee, the party leaders may participate in deciding how many members from each
committee will be appointed as conferees. Also in such cases, Senators may be appointed as
conferees for limited purposes. In the case of a budget reconciliation bill, for example, members
1 This report was written by Stanley Bach, a former Senior Specialist in the Legislative Process. The listed author
updated the report and can answer questions concerning its content.
2 For more information on the process of arranging for a conference in the Senate, see CRS Report RS20454, Going to
Conference in the Senate, by Elizabeth Rybicki.
of the Budget Committee may be appointed as conferees for the entire bill while members of
other Senate committees are appointed as conferees only to consider provisions of the bill that are
within their respective jurisdictions.
The rules of the House and Senate impose much the same restrictions on the kinds of decisions
that their conferees may reach. However, the Senate’s precedents give its conferees considerably
more discretion than their House counterparts.
Senate conferees are to limit themselves to the matters that are in disagreement with the House,
and they are to resolve each such matter within the scope of the differences between the House
and Senate positions. Paragraph 2 of Rule XXVIII states in part that the Senate’s conferees “shall
not insert in their report matter not committed to them by either House, nor shall they strike from
the bill matter agreed to by both Houses.” When the conferees are considering a bill from one
house that the other house has passed with a single amendment in the nature of a substitute, the
conferees write their own version of the bill in conference. However, Rule XXVIII also states that
this conference version may not include “matter not committed to them,” but that it may include
“matter which is a germane modification of subjects in disagreement.” The Senate appears to take
a commonsense approach to deciding whether new matter is sufficiently relevant to constitute a
germane modification of subjects in disagreement.
If a point of order is sustained against a conference report on the grounds that it violates the
prohibition of “new matter,” the matter is stricken from the conference recommendation and the
Senate considers a motion that it proposes to send to the House, in place of the original
conference agreement, a proposal consisting of the conference agreement minus the “new matter”
that was stricken. The terms for consideration of this motion are the same as those that would
have applied to the conference report. If the Senate agrees to the motion, the text, in the form of
an amendment between the houses, is sent to the House, and the House then has an opportunity to
act on the amendment. The Senate can waive points of order raised under Rule XXVIII with a
three-fifths vote of Senators duly chosen and sworn (60 Senators assuming no vacancies).
Senate conferees are also precluded by Paragraph 8 of Rule XLIV from including in a conference
report “new directed spending provisions,”or provisions that provide specific items of
appropriations or direct spending that were not committed to the conference committee in either
the House or Senate versions of the legislation. This point of order is disposed of with the same
procedure just described for Rule XXVIII, and this rule also can be waived by a three-fifths vote
of Senators duly chosen and sworn.
Senate conferees must also bear in mind that there are significant restrictions on the agreements
that House conferees can accept without violating their authority. However, the House can choose
not to enforce these restrictions as they apply to a particular conference report. Before the House
begins floor consideration of that report, the House Rules Committee can report, and the House
can adopt, a resolution waiving all points of order against the conference report and against its 3
Analyst on the Congress and Legislative Process
3 For additional information on the authority and selection of Senate conferees, see Senate Rule XXVIII; Riddick’s
Senate Procedure, pp. 449-493; CRS Report RS22733, Senate Rules Changes in the 110th Congress Affecting
Restrictions on the Content of Conference Reports, by Elizabeth Rybicki; and CRS Report 98-696, Resolving
Legislative Differences in Congress: Conference Committees and Amendments Between the Houses, by Elizabeth