Like many democratic countries, the United States legislature is a bicameral system, which means that it has two houses or chambers. While many nations only allow one chamber to introduce legislation, the US Constitution allows both houses to introduce bills, though it limits revenue bills to the House of Representatives. It further requires that every bill be approved by both chambers before it can be passed to the executive branch to be signed into law. Once a bill has gone through both houses, it generally exists in two versions, the one passed by the originating side and the changes added by other side. At this point, a conference committee is formed with representatives of both houses to create a compromise version which can gain final approval from the Senate and House.
Both the House and the Senate are divided into committees to aid in the expeditious handling of legislative matters. When a bill is introduced, it is generally sent to the committee that handles the kind of matters addressed in the bill. If the committee approves the bill and refers it to the full chamber, then the Representatives or Senators will vote. Once a bill has passed in the originating house, it will be sent to the other house for approval. If the bill is accepted with no changes, it is sent to the President, but if any changes have been made at all, then it must go back to the originating chamber to be approved in the new, revised version.
If the changes are relatively minor, then the originating house may simply pass it and send it on for executive approval. If the changes are significant, then a conference committee is called. As a matter of practice, very few major pieces of federal legislation in the US are passed without having to go to a conference committee.
Senior members are chosen from each house to defend their chamber’s version while trying to come to a consensus. The committee itself is not allowed to make any significant changes or add new amendments which change the substance of the bill. The committee members from each chamber vote separately and prepare a committee report for their respective chambers. A final version must be approved by both houses, or the bill will die for lack of consensus.
In the US, every state except Nebraska also has a bicameral legislature. Most states make similar use of a conference committee to reconcile differences between the two houses in legislation. Some states add certain restrictions regarding the selection of committee members. For example, Texas requires that the conference committee be made up of five members from each chamber, and that at least two of the Senate members be from the committee which referred the bill.
A conference committee may also be used in a business setting. Hospital organizations frequently appoint a joint conference committee with Board members, administrative staff and representatives of the medical staff. The purpose of such committees is generally to aid communication between the different business segments of the organization.