Continued Signs of Life in Congress

By Michael Thorning

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

This is the second quarterly installment of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Healthy Congress Index. The index provides Americans with crucial metrics for evaluating this Congress’s ability to effectively legislate and govern, and compares the data against past Congresses. The period covered by this installment is January through the end of June, making it the halfway point for the First Session of the 114th Congress.

The measures track recommendations released in June 2014 by BPC’s Commission on Political Reform (CPR), which was created to investigate the causes and consequences of America’s partisan political divide and present a plan that reinvigorates a political process that works during a time of hyperpolarized politics.

The key measures of the index include: the number of days Congress spent on legislative business; how open the Senate was to debate and amendments; and how effectively the Congress followed regular order by allowing a substantial committee process, robust floor debate and resolving of House and Senate differences in conference committees.

View 2015 Q2 data

Working Days in Washington

Congressional work periods are divided into two different types: when Congress is “in session,” and therefore meeting for legislative business, and when Congress is “in recess,” and members are in their districts or states directly interacting with constituents.

CPR recommends that Congress be in session conducting legislative business five days a week for three straight weeks, followed by one week in recess. If adopted, the recommendation would translate to between 45 and 50 days working in Washington per quarter.

The Healthy Congress Index uses the term “working days” to mean those days on which Congress meets in Washington and conducts legislative business.

Continuing a trend from the first quarter, the Senate had more working days by the end of June than either of the previous two Congresses. The current Senate had 86 working days, compared with 71 and 73 for the 113th and 112th Congresses, respectively. This number of working days nears the 45-50 days per quarter that would be in line with CPR’s recommendation, but falls short of the working days in the 104th, 110th and 111th Congresses.

The House, with 70 working days at the end of the second quarter, is about on par with the previous two Congresses, which had 69 and 68 working days at this point in their first sessions. As with last quarter, these totals for working days fall short of the working days in the House seen in the Congresses prior to the 112th.

Halfway through the first year of the 114th Congress, there are signs that Congress is spending more days conducting legislative business in Washington.

Regular Order

Three index measures address the regular order of Congress: the committee process, floor debate in the House and conference committees.

The second quarter of the 114th Congress continued the trend of high numbers of bills being reported out of committee. At the end of the first six months, Senate committees had reported 102 bills and House committees had reported 145. In the case of the Senate, this is more than those reported by committees at this point than any other Congress except the 110th. For the House, this is the most bills reported by committees than in any other year the index covers.

This year’s increase in the number of bills reported compared to the two most recent Congresses may be related to the change in party control in the Senate that resulted in unified Republican control of the Congress. The 104th, 110th and 114th Congresses all had relatively higher numbers of bills reported. Those Congresses all correspond with years where one party gained unified control of both chambers. In the 104th and 114th, Republicans won the majority of both the House and Senate after periods where that was not the case. The 110th Congress was a similar situation for Democrats. Once a party assumes control over both chambers, they are encouraged to work to enact their agenda and demonstrate that they can govern.

A second index measure related to regular order is the type of floor debate processes and whether members have an opportunity to offer amendments. The first six months of the 114th Congress saw a large number of House bills considered on the floor, but more than half were under closed rules. This means members could not offer any amendments to the bills. With 26 bills considered under closed rules, the current House set the record for the highest number at this point compared to any of the other Congresses in the index.

By the end of June, 21 bills were considered under structured rules, which allow only a limited number of amendments specified by the House Rules Committee. This is higher than in the previous two Congresses and similar to the numbers in the two prior to those. The majority does not always have more of their amendments considered under structured rules, however. In the case of the current Congress, House Democrats have had 136 amendments considered on the floor and Republicans 106.

Six of the rules governing debate were fully open to amendments, which is lower than those in the 104th, 110th and 112th at this point.

Though the House continues to tighten up on allowing amendments rather than allowing more opportunities for members to fully participate in the floor process, the minority has not been completely shut out of the amendment process.

On conference committees, CPR recommended that important legislation should have the benefit of conference committees to reconcile differences between the chambers. The current Congress passed only one bill through this process—the congressional budget—even though it has passed other important legislation. However, it is still early to judge the use of conference committees thus far. 

Senate Debate: Cloture, Filibusters and Amendments

Two measures of the index—cloture and amendments—provide information about how much the Senate is debating legislation and allowing majority and minority party members to influence legislation.

Cloture is a vote to end debate and proceed to vote on a measure or amendment. By ending debate, the chamber prevents members from filibustering and possibly holding up a measure indefinitely. A large number of cloture votes is not necessarily indicative of the minority party blocking the majority party. It is possible that the majority moves to a cloture vote quickly without much time on the floor used by the minority. It is also the case that there can be several votes for cloture on the same measure.

In the first six months of the 114th Congress, the Senate saw a significantly higher number of cloture votes on legislation than at the same point in all previous Congresses except the 110th. In fact, the Senate voted on roughly twice as many cloture motions as either of the two predecessor Congresses. This increase in cloture votes is due in part to the majority leader often calling for reconsideration of a failed cloture vote rather than abandoning the legislation in question.

On the amendment process, this Senate in its first six months considered 313 amendments, more than at this point during each of the previous three Congresses and the third-highest among the Congresses reflected in the index. Of those, the majority offered 169 amendments, and the minority offered 144 amendments. Almost half of these amendments were to the budget resolution in March, but this is still a notable change compared with recent history.


In the first half of 2015, there are continued signs that the 114th Congress is moving toward a legislative process similar to what BPC’s Commission on Political Reform recommends. The committee process is robust in both chambers. The Senate has spent more days working in Washington and allowed more amendments to be considered on the floor. At the same time, cloture has been used more often to bring debate to a close in that chamber. However, the House has had only about the same number of working days in Washington as in recent years and has had one of the most closed amendment processes in recent history. Additionally, the commission is monitoring with great interest whether conference committees will play a more active role in the legislative process during the rest of the 114th Congress.

Both chambers are demonstrating a bit more activism that the previous Congress, but that in turn has entailed going through more cloture votes in the Senate and more restrictive rules in the House to deal with major legislation.

View 2015 Q2 data