Despite promises from the new Democratic leadership in the House and old promises from the Republican leadership in the Senate, Congress has not become more open and deliberative.
Explore our entire Healthy Congress Index
Six months into the 116th Congress, most of the indicators of the quality of the legislative process are negative. Two measures in particular—floor amendments and bills reported by committee—demonstrate that the House and Senate are not engaging in the kind of deliberation and debate that is necessary to develop quality bills. Despite promises from the new Democratic leadership in the House and old promises from the Republican leadership in the Senate, Congress has not become more open and deliberative.
Amendments are a critical aspect of the legislative process. They are the mechanism by which members make changes to bills, and in doing so, represent their constituents’ interests. The ability to offer amendments is important to a variety of members. For those who are not on the committee of jurisdiction for a bill, when it comes to the floor, amendments are a prime avenue for incorporating their priorities.. For members of the minority party, who typically have less influence when bills are drafted, offering an amendment might be the only opportunity to have their and their constituents’ views considered. Right now, neither the House nor Senate are particularly open to amendments.
In the House, major bills typically come to the floor in one of three ways:
- Under open rules, which means unlimited amendments may be offered
- Under closed rules, which means no amendments may be offered
- Under structured rules, which means the only amendments that maybe be offered are those pre-specified by the Rules Committee, which is controlled by the majority party.
Members of the House were unable to offer amendments to more than half of the bills that came to the floor midway through 2019.
Fifty-one percent of rules were closed and zero rules were open. Forty-nine percent of rules were structured (in other words, specifying that only certain amendments can be considered). This is comparable to the previous Congress, where 53 percent of rules were closed and 47 percent were structured at the six-month mark.
In the Senate, the amendment process is controlled by the leader of the majority party through procedural mechanisms. Traditionally, the Senate has been relatively open to amendments, as the majority and minority parties would negotiate agreements for their consideration. In recent years, however, the Senate has become much more restrictive, and 2019 so far is no exception.
Six months into 2019, the Senate considered just 27 amendments, the second lowest number in recent years. In fact, in some recent years, the Senate had considered more than ten times as many amendments by this point.
BPC recommends that more bills be brought to the floor in the House under open rules, which would allow members significantly greater opportunities to offer amendments. In the Senate, the majority leader should allow ample consideration of amendments from both parties, and not use procedural mechanisms to block them.
Committees have a critical role in Congress. They are responsible for debating issues, deliberating, and developing legislation that has the broad input of committee members. Ideally, committees do this through hearings, oversight, staff background reports, bill drafting, committee markups, and final report writing. BPC recommends that important legislation should not be brought to the floor of the House or Senate without first having the benefit of the committee process.
Midway through 2019, committees in the House and Senate were off to a slow start.
House committees reported just 95 bills between January and June 2019, the second lowest among recent years. In the previous Congress, the 115th, House committees had reported 137 bills by this point. One potential explanation is the change in party control this Congress. A new majority might take more time to get committees in motion. For example, when Republicans regained control of the House in the 112th Congress, committees only reported 66 bills in the first six months.
Senate committees are also off to a slow start. By June, they had reported just 74 bills. In the previous Congress, they had reported 139 bills by the same point, and in the Congress before that, 102. In contrast to the House, a possible explanation for the Senate’s relative inaction is more elusive. Republicans are now in their third consecutive Congress in control of the chamber and have a record of reporting robust numbers of bills.
Both chambers may have been slowed in revving up committee work by the extended partial government shutdown at the beginning of this Congress. For the first time in history, a new Congress began while many parts of the government were shutdown. This Congress spent its first 22 days resolving that crisis. It remains to be seen whether both chambers’ committees can pick up the pace.