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'It's difficult not to feel like a prop here'

On paper, yesterday's conference committee meeting on tax policy should've been important. In practice, it was pointless political theater at its most inane.
The dome of the Capitol is reflected in a puddle in Washington, Feb. 17, 2012.
The dome of the Capitol is reflected in a puddle in Washington, Feb. 17, 2012.

On paper, yesterday offered the public an opportunity to watch an important part of the policymaking process. Because the House and Senate passed different versions of the Republican tax plan, a conference committee has been convened to reconcile the bills' differences and create one final piece of legislation for both chambers to vote on.

The first and only public meeting of the conference committee's members was held on Capitol Hill yesterday afternoon, which theoretically offered Americans a chance to see a meaningful and deliberative debate about a proposal that will dramatically affect the world's largest economy.

In practical terms, however, yesterday's conference committee gathering was a joke: Republicans announced two hours before the meeting began that they'd already finalized the details of the new GOP tax blueprint.

It led Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to note in his opening remarks, "It's difficult not to feel like a prop here."

The Arizona Democrat was, of course, exactly right. This was pointless political theater at its most inane. Committee members got together, ostensibly to begin discussions on a final bill, hours after Republicans said they'd already finished writing the bill in secret and behind closed doors.

And so, for 90 minutes, members bickered for no apparent reason, during which time Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) reminded his Republican colleagues, "This is the United States Congress, not the Duma."

So why bother? Why have a public meeting to begin drafting legislation that's already been drafted? Slate's Jim Newell explained:

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." [...]Several members noted that they would get more information about the final deal from reading reporters' Twitter feeds than sitting in the hearing.

I think this is exactly right. This was a charade intended to create a talking point: Republican leaders can say they went through the motions, even if they were only pretending to care.

This has been a persistent problem. After Senate Republicans narrowly approved their own version of the GOP tax plan, folks such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) swore up and down that they'd followed "regular order."

The claims were an extension of the larger sham. When major legislation is written quickly in secret, approved by committees without any real hearings or testimony from subject-matter experts, and passed with minimal debate in the middle of the night, it's not really "regular order."

Vox had a good piece on this a couple of weeks ago, explaining that while GOP leaders have checked boxes on a "regular order" checklist, they've simply gone through the motions. "[T]he Republican tax bill has been anything but regular," Vox's piece said, adding, "[T]he tax bill is 'regular order' only under a contorted definition."

Yesterday's conference committee gathering, alas, was more of the same.