What do congressional minions actually do when they try to reconcile bills, anyhow?

The detailed work in Congress is done not by members, but rather by the 30,000-odd staff members. Right now, a group of overworked, and probably underpaid, minions are what they call “conferencing” over one of the most important yearly laws: the National Defense Authorization Act. Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with one of those former “minions.” Among other things, she was Senior Defense Adviser to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Michele Pearce is currently an attorney with Covington and Burling.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And we should say that you are also working in national security. You work for the Army department, and so this is still part of your life’s work. Fair to say?

Michele Pearce Absolutely fair to say. In my prior position in the Department of Defense, I was the department’s lead attorney for legislation. So in that capacity, even after having left the Hill, I continued to work on that program, which represents one of the largest programs in the federal government, with literally hundreds of proposals that end up in the final bill each year at the request of the Department of Defense. And obviously through [Office of Management and Budget (OMB)] and by the president. But inevitably, a lot of those provisions in the bill actually stem from requests from the department itself.

Tom Temin And before we get into some of the themes in the NDAA, which has yet to be worked out as we speak here. But what was it like? What really goes on in the meetings? Especially in the conferences, and especially in one of those years like now, where everybody seems to be worlds apart and they don’t like each other very much, one side in the other.

Michele Pearce Well, the committees themselves are really governed by a tradition that they hold dear, which is bipartisanship. And it’s really, really important when you’re a professional staff member on the committees to live by those principles, because at the end of the day, the NDAA is a must pass bill. And one of the reasons why it gets enacted each year, it’s been more than 60 years at this point that we’ve had a defense bill pass. It’s really kind of driven by the expectation from the members that the staff will do the work to get that bill done. And frankly, a lot of the staffers are longtime staffers and they have relationships with one another, both on the House and the Senate side. Many of us, when I was on the committee, had worked together in the Department of Defense or in the Air Force. And so I think that at its most basic, the just guiding principle as staff are conferencing various provisions, even very potentially controversial provisions, that they’re going to work together and they’re going to try to find common ground when they can.

Tom Temin And how does the work take place? Does everyone sit in a conference room with cigarets being stubbed out and broken coffee cups with notebooks open and pens and pencils? On line 56, on page 3,000, you say this. How about if we say, where to for as to cortisol, 16.B. What goes on?

Michele Pearce So the framework is really kind of constructed around a professional staff members portfolio. So I was the staff lead for the Readiness Subcommittee. So every provision that fell into the readiness portfolio were the provisions that I would personally negotiate with my Senate counterparts. And so that’s how the initial conversations are started. You have a portfolio, you have certain issues that you are familiar with and are working on behalf of the members. And you do, in fact sit at a table with pen and pencil in hand, and you basically have a spreadsheet with all the provisions that you are responsible for. And the tradition, again, on the committee is, like I said, to find common ground. But it’s also to really focus on the significant policy ramifications of each of the measures that you are negotiating.

Tom Temin Right. At some level, there is a public purpose in all of this and not simply a negotiation over paragraphs. Your guy, my guy type of thing.

Michele Pearce Correct. And frankly, my view was that, because you have the House position in the Senate position on all of these different policy issues, it really is important to walk through each word to discuss the ramifications of each word that we’re either inserting or perhaps one issue might be to subtract or to strike a provision or a certain word and a potential law that could be very deleterious to our national security posture.

Tom Temin And I exaggerated. It’s only 2,000 pages, the NDAA. And do you imagine right now they’re working nights and weekends?

Michele Pearce Yes. Staff are committed right now to producing what will eventually be the NDAA for fiscal year 2024. And just to kind of get back to how those specific provisions are negotiated, each chamber goes to the conference table and advocates for the enacted bill that was passed in each chamber. So even your own personal views on what the policy should be are really not at issue. It’s the House passed a bill, the provisions in that bill are the provisions that as staff we advocated for and we took that charge very seriously because eventually we would report out to the members what the outcomes of these types of negotiations were, and also to kind of just put a pin in it. The staff negotiations are very cordial, even on very contentious issues. And it would not be surprising on any given day over the weekend for somebody to bring in food for the team conducting the negotiations. Like I said, a lot of the teams are professional staff members who’ve been on the committee for many years and have worked through very contentious bill cycles in the past.

Tom Temin I’ll get the bean soup, but I got to run down to the Senate now before they close the cafeteria type of thing. We’re speaking with Michelle Pearce. She specializes in national security now as an attorney at Covington and Burling. And let’s get into this year’s bill. What are three or four, do you think, are the top themes now that worries Congress and somewhere buried in there worries the Defense Department?

Michele Pearce So China, China and China. You cannot underestimate the effect of the geopolitical landscape related to China. And it’s not just that there are provisions prohibiting various activities,  procurements with China supply chain. Security measures really focused on stemming a lot of malign activities undertaken by the Chinese government. But ultimately, you have to understand that geopolitical landscape is pushing really a whole new line of provisions year after year. You see it particularly during COVID. Supply chain security, that became a huge priority and you continue to see that. But it’s really the situation with China, Taiwan. And it’s oddly enough an area where there is significant bipartisan agreement as to the approach. So you have legislators working together to try and fully understand what more we could be doing on a year to year basis to ensure that we are postured in a way that we are limiting our risks stemming from the situation with our relationship with China.

Tom Temin Right. And that strategic relationship then devolves into a lot of areas and say, for example, well, great, we’ve got 11 carriers and they only have three except a third of our fleet, you name the platform. There’s always in drydock. Well, we don’t have enough space to fix them. Therefore, there’s this 10-year backlog of ship repair. And when you do repair a ship, a big one, it takes two years out of commission, etc., etc., which gets into the industrial base, the acquisition. So it does permeate pretty widely, doesn’t it?

Michele Pearce It really does. And I would add to your list workforce, a skilled workforce that can help our country basically onshore activities and the manufacturing pipelines that to your point, ensure that we have a ship that is ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice, but that as having a skilled workforce has certainly been a concern, and you see a lot of focus also on skilled workforce development programs that the department is focused on to ensure that we have the skilled people who can actually put together and craft not just a ship, but an airplane. And you think of all of our major acquisition platforms and programs. Each one of those programs requires a very skilled workforce, and it takes a really long time, for example, to train and develop a welders skill, for example.

Tom Temin Right. And that’s the workforce, both for DoD itself, the Civilian and Uniform Workforce Development, and the defense industrial base workforce, too. Fair to say.

Michele Pearce Absolutely. That’s right.

Tom Temin Yeah. Everyone thinks airplanes, they look simple from the outside, but just open a panel on one of them and look inside and see how complicated the stuff really is. All right. So they’ll get it done because they get it done by the end of the year.

Michele Pearce Absolutely. And so just to kind of give you a little bit more perspective on how the conference process wraps up, with respect to these negotiations. There inevitably are at the end of these types of negotiations, a number of provisions that the staff just couldn’t reach agreement on. So those provisions are tabled and actually briefed to the leaders on the committee, the staff directors in both the House and the Senate, and then also the leadership of the committee. So the chairs and the ranking members. And in those instances, again, it’s very bipartisan, very collaborative. You have members of Congress who’ve been working together for many, many years in various capacities and on various committees. They take the charge very seriously that they are responsible for the security of the Department of Defense, the United States. They inevitably will try to find a compromise if there isn’t a clear solution that is going to satisfy both parties and both chambers.

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