This is the sixth quarterly installment of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Healthy Congress Index, and the second for 2016. The index provides Americans with crucial metrics for evaluating the current Congress’s ability to effectively legislate and govern and compares the data against past congresses. The period covered by this installment is January 2015 through the end of June 2016, and the numbers presented here are cumulative.
The measures track key 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 make recommendations to reinvigorate a political process that can work 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 Congress followed regular order by allowing a substantial committee process, robust floor debate, and resolving of House and Senate differences in conference committees.
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.
Three-fourths of the way through the 114th Congress, both the House and Senate remain far below the 45 to 50 working days per quarter recommended by CPR. Under that standard, at this point in the two-year period, each chamber should have completed around 270 to 300 working days.
The current Senate has worked in Washington for 229 days. This is below BPC’s recommendation and the number of working days in the 104th, 110th, and 111th Congresses, but it is a slight improvement over the two most recent congresses. The 113th had worked 210 days by this point and the 112th had worked 220.
Both the House and Senate remain far below the 45 to 50 working days per quarter recommended by BPC.
The current House has worked the lowest number of days at this point among all of the congresses measured in the index. As of the end of June, it has worked only 193 days in Washington. This finding seems to be a continuation of the downward trend that started during the 113th and 112th Congresses.
Three index measures address the regular order of Congress: floor debate in the House, the committee process, and conference committees.
A key element to regular order in the House is the ability of members to offer and consider amendments on the floor. Eighteen months into the 114th Congress, the process remains mostly closed. Compared with recent congresses, a high number of bills were considered under closed rules, where no amendments may be offered, and fewer under open rules, where the bill is completely open to amendments.
Closed, no-amendment rules accounted for 54 of the 129 rules reported by the Rules Committee, while only eight were completely open to amendment. The remaining 67 were considered under structured rules, meaning the only amendments allowed were those specified by the Rules Committee, which is controlled by the majority party. In the 113th Congress, 55 bills were considered under closed rules, 11 under open rules, and 57 under structured rules. In the 112th, there were 41 bills considered under closed rules, 25 open, and 57 structured.
A high number of bills were considered under closed rules, where no amendments may be offered.
In instances where structured rules were in place, both the minority and majority parties were afforded ample opportunities to offer amendments. This Congress, Democrats have offered 427 amendments under structured rules, and Republicans offered 330.
In 2015, newly elected House Speaker Paul Ryan pledged to improve the amendment process in the House as part of returning to regular order. This was in response to concerns raised by House members about the high number of bills considered under restrictive rules, which has been an increasing trend over the last decade. The numbers in the index still mostly reflect the tenure of Ryan’s predecessor, former Speaker John Boehner, and it is still early to judge the efficacy of Ryan’s pledge. However, signs of change have yet to appear during the two full quarters under his speakership. BPC will continue to monitor progress in this area.
An additional measure related to regular order is the number of bills reported by committees. In the current Congress, both chambers continue to report a high number of bills out of committee. The Senate, with 402 bills reported, had the second highest number among the years included in the index, surpassed only by the 110th Congress, which reported 540 bills. The House, with 515 bills reported, had the highest number of bills at this point among all of these congresses. This is the most positive development in the House in terms of returning to regular order, and the chamber’s leadership should continue to build upon this success in broadening the input of members in the legislative process.
BPC’s commission recommended that important legislation should have the benefit of conference committees to reconcile differences between the chambers. By June 2016, the current Congress had only adopted five conference committee reports, which is a slight improvement over the previous Congress and on par or below its other recent predecessors. BPC hopes the current Congress will more fully utilize this vital process through the remainder of the year.
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.
As of June, there were a high number of cloture motions filed and votes on cloture in the Senate. With 105 cloture votes, the Senate took about twice as many cloture votes as either of the two preceding congresses and more than any other in the index. This high number has been partly caused by protracted floor processes for the measures the Senate considered. In several instances, multiple votes were taken and/or multiple cloture motions filed on the same underlying measure.
On a more positive note, the momentum in the Senate toward considering more amendments has continued. The current Senate considered 703 amendments by the end of June compared with 324 in the 113th Congress and 450 during the 112th. If this trend continues, the Senate may approach numbers similar to those prior to the 112th.
The momentum in the Senate toward considering more amendments has continued.
As for the distribution of amendments, of the 703 considered, 382 were offered by the majority party and 321 by the minority party. This division means that approximately 54 percent were offered by Republicans and 46 percent by Democrats.
Three-fourths of the way through, the 114th Congress has shown some improvements toward a healthier legislative process, but it has stagnated or fallen behind on others.
Both chambers fall below the number of days in Washington recommended by CPR and have not kept pace with the congresses prior to the 112th. At the same time, both chambers have reported many more bills out of committee compared with recent previous congresses. Conference committees have not played much of a role in the legislative process, though, and have been used much less than in the 111th, 110th, and 104th.
In terms of floor process, the Senate continues to see high numbers of cloture motions filed and votes on cloture, suggesting a lack of agreement on when or whether to move forward on legislation. The Senate considered a high number of amendments, especially when compared with recent years, and they were about evenly distributed between the majority and minority. The amendment process in the House remains mostly restricted, with few opportunities for members to offer amendments to bills.
With shortened schedules due to the early recess for the national party conventions and the November election, there is little time for either chamber to make improvements in these areas. In reality, the shortened schedules present more of a risk of falling behind the pace of activity revealed in this report. Congressional leaders should be mindful of this when they return in September.