Around noon on Wednesday, word begin to spread to media outlets that Republican conferees in the House and Senate had reached a deal in merging the two bills. About two hours later, the conference committee had its first, and only, public hearing to discuss how they might merge the two bills.
The only purpose of the meeting was to serve as a photo-op for Republicans to argue that the conference committee was conducted under “regular order.” All the necessary photos were taken before the chairman of the conference committee, Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, could gavel in the session. The rest was theater.
“It’s difficult not to feel like a prop here,” Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona said in his opening remarks.
Over the course of 90-plus minutes of opening remarks, alternating between parties, Republicans delivered their talking points about jumpstarting the economy, while Democrats asked what the hell was even going on. Engagement and debate between the two sides occurred only superficially. After Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, noted the “farce” of the hearing, and ripped the bill for doling out public wealth to the rich and leaving domestic spending for the poor and middle class on the chopping block, Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam used his time to contrast the two parties’ visions. Sanders’ view, Roskam said, represented the “cul-de-sac of envy,” while Republicans offered the “highway of opportunity.” Nice.
Democrats spent much of their time trying to offer procedural motions that were out of order, and then feigning horror when Brady labeled them as such. Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee (and of the conference committee), immediately called for a motion to delay the conference until Alabama Sen.-elect Doug Jones was seated. Brady said no.
Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett was the Democrats’ most reliable ham, though. When he, too, tried to offer a privileged motion, and Brady told him he wasn’t allowed to do that, Doggett was aghast. “We’re operating under House and Senate conference rules, not Putin rules!” Doggett made it a theme.
“This is the United States Congress,” he said, “not the Duma.”
Several members noted that they would get more information about the final deal from reading reporters’ Twitter feeds than sitting in the hearing. “Republicans say they have a deal on the tax bill,” Michigan Rep. Sandy Levin said, and we’re having a conference committee on two bills that passed two houses?” He, too, took a stab at the art of metaphor. “The horse is out of the barn, but it’s limping,” he said. “Limping badly.” Eh, not his best. Levin recently announced that he would be retiring to his home on the cul-de-sac of envy at the conclusion of the 115th Congress.
Once the opening statements concluded, Thomas Barthold, chief of staff to the Joint Committee on Taxation, gave a presentation of the differences between the House and Senate tax bills. Outside the conference room, the rest of Washington briefed itself on the deal that had already been reached.