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Final Analysis: 114th Congress Improves, but Gridlock Overshadows

By Michael Thorning

Thursday, January 19, 2017

This installment of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Healthy Congress Index is the final analysis of the 114th Congress. The index provides Americans with crucial metrics for evaluating Congress’s ability to effectively legislate and govern and compares the data against past congresses. The period covered by this installment is January 6, 2015 through January 3, 2017, 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.

By the end of the 114th Congress, neither chamber had accrued an impressive number of days spent working in Washington. 

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.

By the end of the 114th Congress, neither chamber had accrued an impressive number of days spent working in Washington. Both chambers fell well below the number of working days recommended by CPR. Under that standard of three five-day workweeks followed by one week of recess, Congress should spend approximately 330 working days in Washington in the two-year period (providing for a full month’s recess in August of each session).

The House spent just 227 days tending to legislative duties in the Capitol during the last two years. This total is the lowest among the years covered by the index. Though not exemplary, the 113th Congress worked for 240 days, the 112th for 243, the 111th for 257, and the 110th for 254.

The Senate also only performed about as well as the previous Congress in terms of time spent working in Washington, but also below its other recent predecessors and CPR’s recommendation. From 2015-2016, the Senate worked 262 days compared with 253 in the 113th Congress, 271 in the 112th, and 327 in the 111th. By comparison, the 110th Congress worked for 304 days and the 104th for 323.

Regular Order

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. Throughout the 114th Congress, the process remained largely closed with no opportunities to offer amendments. 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.

In the 114th Congress, closed rules accounted for 65 of the 155 rules reported by the Rules Committee, while only eight were completely open to amendment. This total is the second highest share of closed rules and second lowest share of open rules among recent congresses. The remaining 82 rules were structured, meaning the only amendments allowed were those specified by the Rules Committee, which is controlled by the majority party.

In the 113th Congress, 72 of the 149 bills were considered under closed rules, 12 under open rules, and 65 under structured rules. In the 112th, 50 of the 140 bills were considered under closed rules, 25 open, and 65 structured.

More positively, in instances where structured rules were in place, both the minority and majority parties were afforded ample opportunities to offer amendments. During the 114th Congress, Democrats offered 554 amendments under structured rules, and Republicans offered 486. One hundred ninety-three were offered on a bipartisan basis.

Only seven conference committee reports were adopted, which is a slight improvement over the previous Congress.

In recent years, many members from both parties have complained of the lack of opportunities to offer amendments and the high number of bills considered under closed rules. The 114th Congress’s record does not seem to bear out any notable change in this area.

An additional measure related to regular order is the number of bills reported by committees. Both chambers were very active in reporting bills out of committee this Congress. The Senate, with 546 bills reported, had the second highest number among the years included in the index, surpassed only by the 110th Congress. The House, with 725 bills reported, had the highest number of bills reported among all of the congresses included in the index. Particularly for the House, this is a positive development in improving the legislative process in that chamber.

BPC’s commission recommended that important legislation should have the benefit of conference committees to reconcile differences between the chambers. By the end of the 114th Congress, the use of conference committees remained low. Only seven conference committee reports were adopted, which is a slight improvement over the previous Congress, but below most of its recent predecessors.

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.

The Senate during the 114th Congress considered an extremely high number of cloture motions on legislation. With 122 cloture votes, the Senate took nearly twice as many cloture votes as either of the two preceding congresses and more than any other in the index. Of these, less than half were invoked, meaning more often than not, the Senate was unable to end debate and move forward in considering the bill. In recent years, though cloture votes were high, the Senate was usually able to move forward to consider legislation. Cloture was invoked at or around 60 percent of the time and since the 110th Congress has not fallen below the 50 percent mark.

These numbers reflect 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 114th Senate considered 763 amendments by compared with 384 in the 113th Congress and 677 during the 112th.

As for the distribution of amendments, of the 763 considered, 428 were offered by the majority party and 335 by the minority party. This division means that approximately 56 percent of amendments were offered by Republicans and 44 percent by Democrats.

It now falls to the 115th Congress to improve the institution’s functioning.

Conclusion

The 114th Congress undoubtedly saw improvements to the legislative process, but there were concerning trends as well.

The committees in the House worked at an energetic pace to report its highest number of bills. The Senate greatly increased the number of amendments considered on the floor. Less positively, neither chamber worked to its full potential in terms of the number days spent working in Washington nor have conference committees been used often as a means to resolve the differences between chambers on legislation. On the floor, the Senate struggled to move forward with legislation and the House did not shift toward a more open process for amendments.

As the books are closed on the 114th Congress and the state of its legislative process is clear, it now falls to the 115th Congress to improve the institution’s functioning. The majority leadership of the House and Senate remains largely the same for the 115th Congress. Their work is cut out for them in terms of returning Congress to regular order and tending to their legislative responsibilities. To be sure, the minority must also play a part in untying the knots that currently bind Congress, but the majority has a greater ability to set the standard for a healthy legislative process.

KEYWORDS: HOUSE RULES COMMITTEE, COMMISSION ON POLITICAL REFORM, 114TH CONGRESS