Jerry Kopel

Most remaining Colorado House bills are now in the Senate and most remaining Colorado Senate bills are now in the House. So what? Well, this is when conference committees begin to operate. The public needs to understand what they do in Colorado.

Example: The House amends a Senate bill, and the Senate is unhappy. When the bill returns to the Senate for approval of the amendment, the Senate sponsor (or someone else) asks for a conference committee to resolve the differences.

In 2001, there were 41 conference committees, and 33 in 2002. Was that because the Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans controlled the House? Actually, no. In 1999 and 2000, Republicans controlled both houses. In 1999 there were 50 conference committees and in 2000 there were 63 conference committees. Does this mean Republicans have more problems dealing with their compatriots than they do dealing with the Democrats? Probably.

Each state's rules on conference committees differ. In Colorado, the House Speaker and Senate President each appoint three members. Traditionally, one member of each house is a member of the minority party even though the rules do not require it.

Votes are by a majority of the quorum (at least four legislators). However, to ADOPT the conference committee report, two members from each house must approve. If three Senators and one House member approve an amendment, that's enough. But three Senators and one House member can't approve the final report.

Let's track a normal conference committee:

1. Senate bill passes Senate and is amended in the House.

2. Senate asks for a conference committee and the House agrees.

3. Each house appoints three members, but the Senate appoints the chairperson because the Senate asked for the conference.

4. Senate rules apply because they asked for the conference.

At this point, suppose the committee members realize they need more flexibility to settle the differences. If both houses consent by a majority of those elected in each house, the committee gets more maneuver room. This is also a DANGER area because the committee can simply throw out the original differences and produce an entirely new bill.

5. Conference report is adopted signed by two members of each house. There can be a minority report if one member of each house signs the minority report.

6. The House acts first on the report because they agreed to the conference. Then the Senate acts.

7. Both houses need to adopt the report, then re-adopt the bill, each by a majority vote (18 of 35 and 33 of 65).

How can you avoid a conference committee? The easiest way is to simply agree to adopt the amendments made in the other house (recede from your original position). But another way is to "adhere" to your original position. Adhere means "to remain firmly attached to.."

A motion to adhere is NOT a scheduled event. It can come anytime the body is meeting formally as the House or Senate as opposed to scheduled debate time which is called the "committee of the whole".

Of course, a motion to adhere is often a "red flag" to the other house. If the motion is adopted by a majority elected to vote, the other house has to retreat by receding. If the second house adheres to its position, the bill is dead. A motion to adhere only works if one house wants the bill badly enough to let the other house dictate the terms.

The above is how events occur 95 percent of the time. There can be other complexities quite abstruse. And sometimes a bill dies even though everyone voted in favor.

In 2002, I drafted a bill for a senator that passed 100 to 0, but didn't become law. The House had made a slight amendment which the senator didn't like. But it was too late for a conference committee and the bill died.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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Copyright 2015 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel