Ideas. Action. Results.

Healthy Congress Index: 115th Congress Functioned Poorly, Derelict in Basic Duties

By Michael Thorning

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s quarterly Healthy Congress Index provides Americans with crucial metrics for evaluating Congress’s ability to effectively legislate and govern. The data offer insights into how the current Congress is functioning compared with past congresses.

This report covers the entire 115th Congress, which governed from January 3, 2017 through January 3, 2019. The numbers presented are cumulative, unless otherwise noted.

The measures track key recommendations of BPC’s Commission on Political Reform, 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:

  • Number of days Congress spent on legislative business
  • How effectively Congress followed regular order by allowing a substantial committee process, robust floor debate, the ability of members to offer amendments, and resolving House and Senate differences in conference committees
  • Progress on the budget and appropriations processes
  • Amount of oversight performed by Congress measured by programs receiving appropriations after authorizations have expired

Summary

  • Neither the House of Representatives nor Senate worked a sufficient number of days in Washington. Both were well short of BPC’s recommended target of 330 days for a complete, two-year Congress.
  • The Senate considered fewer amendments than in the previous Congress, and the second fewest amendments among the years covered by the index.
  • The House floor was the most closed to amendments. Amendments could not be offered on more than half of bills.
  • Congress failed to fund all areas of the government on time, which led to several lapses in funding and multiple full or partial shutdowns. Early progress on appropriations for FY2019 limited the impact of shutdown that began on December 22, 2018.

The 115th Congress functioned poorly overall. In several key areas, it underperformed its predecessors and its own expectations set by leaders at the outset. Most significantly, Congress did not meet its most basic duty to fully fund the government, which resulted in several shutdowns of the government over the two-year period. In late 2018, for the first time ever, a shutdown from one Congress carried over into the next. Signs of regular order in the legislative process also did not materialize. Neither chamber allowed members ample opportunity to offer amendments to bills, which allow members to present different options on legislation. Conference committees were used sparingly to resolve differences on bills between the House and Senate. Congress was also hamstrung by a light work schedule over the two-year period. While both chambers worked more days in Washington than the previous Congress, neither came close to meeting the standard of a five-day workweek.

Budget and Appropriations Process

Congress and the president must take actions before certain deadlines to ensure the government is funded before the start of the next fiscal year on October 1. How the process should work: by law, the president submits a budget proposal to Congress by the first Monday in February, Congress adopts a budget resolution by April 15, which sets overall spending limits for government programs, then Congress then starts writing appropriations bills to approve spending for specific government programs. Those 12 appropriations bills should be passed and signed into law by September 30 to avoid a gap in funding or a potential government shutdown.

When these deadlines are not met, Congress often takes stopgap measures such as combining all or a number of the 12 appropriations bills into one piece of legislation, often called an omnibus bill. Another option is to pass a continuing resolution to temporarily fund the government until a later specified date.

The budget and appropriations process during the 115th Congress (2017-2018) was anything but normal. The previous 114th Congress never completed its work for fiscal year 2017, and as a result, that duty fell to the 115th Congress when it convened in January 2017. The subsequent FY2018 and FY2019 processes did not go smoothly.

FY2018: President Trump and Congress both were behind schedule in the budget process. The administration’s budget proposal was submitted 107 days late—much later than other presidents even in their first year in office. Congress then did not enact a budget resolution until October 2017, six months past its statutory target date. This set the stage for an unsuccessful appropriations process that year. Neither chamber passed a single stand-alone appropriations bill (out of 12) by the start of the fiscal year. Congress relied upon a series of five continuing resolutions—stopgap measures that keep the government funded at current levels for a limited period of time—and experienced two separate lapses in funding before finally passing permanent appropriations in March 2018, six months behind schedule.

FY2019: Despite early progress on funding the government, Congress ultimately was unable to finish the job for FY2019. President Trump submitted his budget proposal basically on time, only seven days later than expected. Congress, however, did not adopt a budget resolution for FY2019. This was also the case for six of the previous 12 fiscal years. However, on a positive note, the House and Senate appropriations committees each passed all 12 appropriations bills, allowing the full chambers to each pass nine of the 12 as well. The House and Senate were able to reconcile their differences on funding for five of the 12 bills by the time the fiscal year started. Unfortunately, the remaining seven bills were not finalized. Two continuing resolutions were enacted to fund the remaining areas of government, the last of which expired on December 22, 2018. A 35-day shutdown of the government ensued and was not resolved before the end of the 115th Congress. This is the first time that a shutdown has carried over into a new Congress.

Working Days in Washington

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

BPC’s Commission on Political Reform 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 BPC’s standard, each chamber should work at least 330 days in a two-year period. The House was at work in the Capitol for just 246 days, which is a slight improvement over the previous congress, which worked 227 days, but about on par with other recent congresses. The House worked 240 days during the 113th, 243 days during the 112th, 257 days during the 111th, and 254 days during the 110th. During the 104th Congress, the House worked for 247 days.

The Senate worked 299 days in Washington, a notable improvement over the number of days in the 112th to 114th congresses, but still slightly below BPC’s recommendation. The Senate in the 114th worked 262 days, the 113th worked 253, and the 112th worked 271. The Senate during the 111th Congress was in Washington for 327 days and the 110th for 304. During the 104th Congress, the Senate was at work in the Capitol for 323 days. Some of the Senate’s improvement this Congress were a result of its decision to work through a portion of the usual August recess in 2018.

Senate Debate: Amendments, Cloture, Filibusters,

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.

Amendments are an important aspect of regular order in the Senate. They give members an opportunity to contribute to bills and participate in the legislative process. This is especially true for members of the minority party. The Senate amendment process has historically been relatively open, however, in recent years, majority leadership has regularly used procedural tactics to block members from offering amendments.

The Senate considered the second lowest number of amendments—466—of any of the periods tracked in the index. Comparatively, the 114th Congress considered 763, the 113th considered 384, the 112th considered 677, and the 111th Congress considered 891. During the 110th Congress, the Senate had nearly three times as many amendments.

The distribution of amendments between the majority and minority was out of step with recent norms. In the past, amendments tended to have been split about evenly between majority and minority. Since January 2017, however, 65 percent of amendments considered were sponsored by the majority Republicans and just 35 percent came from the minority Democrats.

Cloture is a vote to end debate on a measure or amendment, which prevents members from filibustering and possibly holding up a measure indefinitely. To invoke cloture on a measure or amendment requires a supermajority vote. 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.

Attempts to filibuster legislation are at the lowest level of this decade. The Senate took just 37 cloture votes compared with 117 in the 114th Congress, 65 in the 113th, 58 in the 112th, 68 in the 111th, and 109 in the 110th. In the 104th Congress, the Senate took 48 votes on cloture. The index includes the 104th Congress for unique insight into congressional behavior when party control of the House and Senate has flipped. Among the 33 votes in the current Congress, cloture was invoked in 27 instances and failed in 10, suggesting that in most instances, attempts to filibuster were unsuccessful in blocking measures from further consideration.

Amendment Process in the House

Essential to regular order in the House is the ability of members to offer and consider amendments on the floor. When a measure is considered under open rules, unlimited amendments may be offered by members. Under closed rules, no amendments may be offered. Under structured rules, the only amendments that maybe be offered are those specified by the Rules Committee, which is controlled by the majority party.

Members of the House were unable to offer amendments to most of the bills that came to the floor this Congress. Fifty-six percent of rules were closed, meaning no amendments could be offered. This percentage of closed rules marks the highest level in the index. At this point, no previous Congress had exceeded 48 percent closed rules.

However, 44 percent of rules were structured, meaning amendments preapproved by the majority-controlled Rules Committee could be offered. When structured rules were in place, 48 percent of amendments were offered by Democrats, the minority, 39 percent were offered by Republicans, the majority, and 13 percent were offered on a bipartisan basis.

Zero rules were open. Only one other Congress in the index, the 111th, had zero open rules at this point during the two-year period. Members had more opportunities to offer amendments during the 111th Congress, however, with structured rules in effect 68 percent of the time.

Resolving Differences Between the Chambers

CPR recommends that important legislation should have the benefit of conference committees to reconcile differences between the House and Senate.

Since January 2017, five conference reports have been approved by both chambers, the second lowest among the years in the index. Comparatively, the 114th Congress relied on conference committees to resolve differences on seven bills, the 113th on three bills, and the 112th on seven bills. The 111th used conference committees for 13 bills and 110th for 14, while the 104th did so for 55.

Committee Process

A key element of regular order in Congress is the number of bills approved by committees and reported to the full House or Senate for action. BPC’s commission recommends that major legislation should have the benefit of the committee process before coming to the floor of either chamber.

Committees in both the House and Senate were very active in reporting bills. House committees reported 914 bills in the 115th Congress, the highest for any similar periods in the index. Bills reported by House committees have been on an upward trend since the 111th Congress. Senate committees reported 607 bills, the second-highest in the index and only surpassed by the 110th, which reported 761 bills. The Senate continued gains first seen in the 114th Congress over a lull in bills reported during the 112th and 113th.

Oversight and Reauthorizations 

Authorizing committees in Congress should routinely review government programs and renew, adjust, or eliminate their authorizations for funding. To measure how diligently committees are conducting this essential oversight, the index identifies programs receiving appropriations for which the underlying authorization has expired. This measure is only updated on an annual basis.

The data presented in the index show that over time, spending on programs with expired authorizations has grown as a percent of overall spending. From FY2014 through FY2016, funding for programs with expired authorizations made up one-quarter or more of all discretionary spending. This finding suggests that the number of federal programs that have not been reviewed and reauthorized by congressional committees has grown since FY1995, when these programs made up about 17 percent of spending.

Due to the ongoing government shutdown, the Congressional Budget Office has delayed the 2019 release of its annual report that underlies BPC’s analysis for this metric. An update will be made when that report is available.

KEYWORDS: HEALTHY CONGRESS INDEX