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Graveyard Senate? Impeachment-Obsessed House? Or Just Dysfunctional?

Throughout 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell traded barbs over whose chamber was worse: the “graveyard” Senate or the “impeachment obsessed” House. Data points from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s latest Healthy Congress Index (HCI) suggest that, despite some modest improvements in the House, both chambers were fairly dysfunctional in 2019. With an election year now underway, both Pelosi’s and McConnell’s leadership will be tested as to whether things can be turned around.

The first session of the 116th Congress—January 3, 2019 through January 3, 2020—was tumultuous. It began with a government shutdown thrust upon it by the president and the 115th Congress. The year ended with impeachment and escalating war tensions.

As noted midway through 2019, neither chamber was off to a good start in its first six months. House Democrats were falling short on their promises to allow more amendments when bills were debated on the floor, and similarly, Senate Republicans continued to preside over an amendment drought which they initiated in the previous Congress. Earlier in the year, both chambers notably put in respectable numbers of working days in Washington, but there was much time left in the session for that to slip. And slip they did.

 

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Working Days in Washington

The amount of time Congress spends at work in the Capitol is a basic starting point for determining its health. In recent years, Congress has kept a light schedule in Washington, hamstringing its ability to govern. This trend has even drawn the attention of a special committee investigating ways to improve the institution, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

BPC recommends that Congress maintain a five-day workweek in Washington for three straight weeks followed by one week of work for members in their states or districts. This schedule would allow predictable, uninterrupted time for members to tend to both their legislative duties and interact with constituents. If adopted, it would translate to between 45 and 50 working days in Washington per quarter. Allowing for the traditional August work period at home with constituents, we would expect each chamber to work about 165 days per year in the Capitol.

In 2019, neither chamber came close to a five-day workweek in Washington. The House worked for 134 days in Washington, more than 30 days short of the five-day workweek standard. The Senate worked 142 days in the Capitol, more than 20 days short of the five-day workweek. On average, the House and Senate each worked only about three days per week throughout the year.

For the Senate, this marks a decline in the number of working days since Republicans took control of the chamber in the 114th Congress. In that Congress and the 115th, there was a notable uptick in working days, but the Senate has sunk back to levels similar to the 112th and 113th when Democrats controlled the chamber. The House, under both parties’ control, has steadily worked a low number of days since the 112th Congress.

A more productive congressional work schedule is not an unachievable goal from the distant past. As recently as the 110th and 111th Congresses, both the House and Senate spent far more time in Washington than they have in recent years. It can be done again.

Amendments

Amendments are an essential element of a healthy legislative process. They are the indispensable tool for members of Congress to make changes to legislation before a vote, and one of the primary mechanisms by which they can have their constituents’ interests considered. Put another way, legislators who can’t offer amendments are working with one hand tied behind their back.

House: To the modest credit of House Democrats, and in line with promises made by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern, 2019 was a better year for amendments in the House than 2017. Whereas in 2017 amendments could not be offered to more than half of bills that came to the floor, in 2019, that number slipped back below the fifty-percent threshold.

Forty-nine percent of rules were closed, meaning no amendments could be offered. Fifty-one percent of rules were structured, meaning only amendments pre-approved by the majority-controlled Rules Committee could be offered. Zero rules were open, which would allow any member to offer an amendment. While some credit is due for a very modest movement in the right direction, the amendment process in the House was still tightly restricted in 2019.

Senate: The amendment situation deteriorated in the Senate in 2019. Largely in the hands of Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Senate considered the fewest amendments—117—of any First Session in recent history. Comparatively, during the 110th Congress, the Senate considered nearly ten times as many amendments.

Amendments used to be common and plentiful in both the House and Senate, but much like true debate and deliberation, they have become rare and scarce.

Additional measures in the Healthy Congress Index support the conclusion that the legislative process was mostly dysfunctional in 2019. The normal budget and appropriations processes were largely ignored, the filibuster became more of an obstacle in the Senate, and conference committees were rarely used. The leadership of both parties in both chambers have a long way to go to restore Congress’s ability to deliberate and govern effectively.

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