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Healthy Congress Index: Signs of Progress on Appropriations

By Michael Thorning

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s quarterly Healthy Congress Index provides Americans with crucial metrics for evaluating Congress’s ability to effectively legislate and govern, and compares the data against past congresses.  

This sixth report on the 115th Congress covers the entire first session and the first six months of the second session, January 3, 2017, through June 30, 2018. 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 of 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

  • Appropriations committees in both chambers have made rare, early progress in reporting bills to the floor
  • Number of working days in Washington for the House and Senate are suboptimal
  • Congressional committees are reporting higher numbers of bills than in recent years
  • Senate filibusters on legislation have been less of an obstacle than in the past
  • The House and Senate are at low points for the ability of members to offer amendments

While the 115th Congress has a mixed record so far in terms of the legislative process, there are signs of hope for regular order in the appropriations process for the upcoming fiscal year. The House and Senate appropriations committees have both made considerable progress in reporting the twelve appropriations bills, and each chamber passed some of the appropriations bills before the end of June. This momentum must continue if the government is to be funded on time by the October 1 start of the new fiscal year. Past performance suggests that will be a tall order.

The index found two other positive signs: the high number of bills reported by committees in both chambers compare very favorably against other recent congresses, and the Senate has seen a relatively low number of filibuster attempts on legislation.

But there are plenty of areas for improvement. Neither the House nor Senate has given members ample opportunity to offer amendments, and each is at its respective low point by this measure compared to recent congresses. Conference committees are not being utilized to their full potential to reconcile legislation coming from the House and Senate. As for time Congress spends working in Washington, both House and Senate working days are up over recent low levels, but far short of BPC’s recommendation that Congress should have spent approximately 255 working days in Washington by the end of the second quarter of the second session.

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 1st. 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, which sets overall spending limits for government programs, by April 15, then Congress 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.

There are signs of hope for regular order in the appropriations process for the upcoming fiscal year. 

The House and Senate appropriations committees are on track to complete each of the 12 regular appropriations bills that fund respective areas of the government. The Senate Appropriations Committee has reported all 12 bills to the full Senate, which it also did for FY2017, but at no other point since 2007. Three of the bills have been passed by the full Senate, which must reconcile any differences with the House’s appropriations legislation before final enactment. Rarely has the full Senate passed any appropriations bills by this point.

The House Appropriations Committee reported 10 of the 12 appropriations bills before the end of June, which is also respectable progress. The full House passed four of those bills, which is about the House average since 2007. This is no guarantee that any of the 12 appropriations bills will be enacted on time. Among the years in the index, regardless of party control, Congress has never enacted all 12 bills by the start of the fiscal year on October 1.

The budget and appropriations processes during the 115th Congress has not been smooth. The 115th Congress should have been responsible for FY2018 and FY2019 budgets and appropriations. However, the FY2017 budget process, which should have been completed in the prior Congress, spilled over into the 115th. Congress did not adopt a final budget resolution for FY2017 until January 2017, almost four months into the fiscal year. Congress then relied on a series of three continuing resolutions to fund the government until May 2017, eight months into the fiscal year, when it finally enacted appropriations for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The FY2018 budget and appropriations process functioned even worse. President Trump submitted the administration’s budget proposal 107 days late, though that is not unusual for new administrations. Congress then did not adopt its own budget resolution until late October 2017, more than 6 months late and several weeks after the start of the fiscal year. Congress then relied on five continuing resolutions to provide stopgap funding for the government before it enacted full-year appropriations in March 2018, more than six months into the fiscal year. This kick-the-can-down-the-road approach resulted in a brief lapse in funding that lasted less than one day.

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 on a measure or amendment. Ending debate 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.

Attempts to filibuster legislation are at the lowest level of the last decade. The current Senate has taken just 33 cloture votes compared with 104 in the 114th Congress, 55 in the 113th, 46 in the 112th, 54 in the 111th, and 95 in the 110th. In the 104th Congress, the Senate took 46 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 this Congress, cloture was invoked in 23 instances and failed in 10, suggesting that in most instances, attempts to filibuster were not successful in blocking measures from further consideration.

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. 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 has considered the lowest number of amendments—258 between January 2017 and the end of June 2018—of any of the years tracked in the index. Comparatively, the 114th considered 703, the 113th considered 324, and the 112th considered 450. During the 111th Congress, the Senate considered about three times as many amendments as the current Senate, and the 110th considered almost five times as many.

The distribution of amendments between the majority and minority has been out of step with recent norms as well. In the past, amendments tended to have been split evenly between majority and minority, or perhaps a 60-40 split in favor of the majority. Since January 2017, however, 68 percent of amendments considered were sponsored by the majority Republicans and just 32 percent came from the minority Democrats.

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. Since January 2017, 55 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 45 percent closed rules.

At this point, no previous Congress had exceeded 45 percent closed rules. 

However, 45 percent of rules were structured, meaning amendments pre-approved by the majority-controlled Rules Committee could be offered. When structured rules were in place, 47 percent of amendments were offered by Democrats, the minority, 39 percent were offered by Republicans, the majority, and 14 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 72 percent of the time.

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 have worked at least 255 days at this point. Between January 2017 and the end of June 2018, the House was at work in the Capitol for just 210 days, which is similar to recent years. The House spent 193 days in Washington during the 114th Congress, 200 days during the 113th, 199 days during the 112th, 219 days during the 111th, and 221 days during the 110th. During the 104th Congress, the House worked for 217 days.

Since January 2017, the Senate worked 236 days in Washington, an improvement over the number of days in the 112th-114th congresses, but still well below BPC’s recommendation. The Senate in the 114th worked 229 days, the 113th worked 210, and the 112th worked 220 by this point in the two-year period. The Senate during the 111th Congress was in Washington for 273 days and the 110th for 258. During the 104th Congress, the Senate was at work in the Capitol for 281 days.

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 have been very active in reporting bills. House committees reported 643 bills in the 115th Congress, the highest among any years in the index. Senate committees reported 401 bills, the third-highest among the index’s comparative years, and much higher than the lull seen during the 111th through 113th congresses.

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, only one conference report has been approved by both chambers, the lowest among the years in the index. Comparatively, the 114th Congress relied on conference committees to resolve differences on five bills, the 113th on two bills, and the 112th on six bills. The 111th and 110th each used conference committees for 12 bills while the 104th did so for 36.

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 likely only to be updated on an annual basis. 

The data presented in the index shows that over time, spending on programs with expired authorizations has grown as a percent of over 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.

KEYWORDS: 114TH CONGRESS, 115TH CONGRESS, COMMISSION ON POLITICAL REFORM, FY2017, FY2018, HOUSE APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE, SENATE APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE