Ideas. Action. Results.

John Fortier: The demise of debate in Congress

The Hill

Monday, February 12, 2018

At its best, Congress is the world’s greatest deliberative body. Unfortunately, 2017 saw the demise of debate and amendment. A fair and expansive deliberative process is a core element of a healthy regular order legislative process. The opportunity for minority and majority party members to discuss, debate, and most importantly, to offer amendments on pending legislation improves the quality of legislation and deepens the legitimacy of the process by incorporating the diversity of voices and viewpoints Congress is intended to represent.

Amendments offered by the minority party may not win the day, but the opportunity to offer them ensures that the voices of their constituents are heard and considered in a national debate. Even for the majority party, the ability of a broad spectrum of members, not just leadership, to offer amendments increases the participation in shaping legislation.

Last year fell short on deliberation. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s new Healthy Congress Index counts the number of amendments considered in the Senate and the closed and open rules for debate in the House and compares those figures to previous Congresses. In the 2017, the Senate considered only 159 amendments, the lowest number for the first year of a Congress in more than a decade. Compare this to 1,037 amendments considered in 2007. In the House of Representatives, none of the rules for debate were fully open for offering amendments, and 55 percent of the time debate was governed by fully closed rules.

While debate and amendment were in short supply in Congress as a whole, the reasons for this debate deficit were different in the House and the Senate. In the Senate, the key reason for the low number of amendments is not so much that the amendment process is shut down as that the Senate has not addressed as many pieces of debatable legislation. In fact, the new Republican Senate majority in the last Congress did open up the amendment process and increase the number of amendments offered.