Celebrating ten years of productive partisanship.

x - close

Early Data About How the 115th Congress Might Function

By Michael Thorning

Friday, June 2, 2017

This installment of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Healthy Congress Index is the first analysis of the 115th 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 3, 2017, through March 31, 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.

So far, Congress is spending more time in Washington and committees are actively producing bills.

The key measures of the index include: the number of days Congress spent on legislative business; and 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.

New in 2017, two added measures of the index will further examine how well the current Congress is functioning relative to those in the past.  We will track 1) progress on the budget and appropriations processes, and 2) programs receiving appropriations after authorizations have expired.

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.

Three months into 2017, both the House and Senate are nearly on track to hit CPR’s benchmark of 45 days per quarter working in Washington. So far this year, the House has been at work in the Capitol for 41 days. Comparatively, the House in the 114th Congress had worked 36 days, the 113th worked 29, and the 112th worked 34. In the 111th, the beginning of the last Congress seated after a change in presidential administration, the House worked 43 days in its first quarter. Both the 110th and 104th Congresses had worked in excess of 45 days at this point.

The current Senate has worked in Washington for 43 days. At this point in the last Congress, the Senate had worked 44 days. In the 113th and 112th Congress, the Senate worked 30 days and 33 days, respectively. The Senate also worked in excess of 50 days in each of the 104th, 110th, and 111th Congresses.

While both chambers seem to be starting off on the right foot with respect to working days, past congresses have begun with similar momentum in their early months only to fall far short in the end. The index will continue to track both chambers’ activity in this area.

Committee Process

A key element of regular order in Congress is the number of bills reported by committees. So far, both chambers have been active in reporting bills out of committee. The Senate, with 22 bills reported, had the second highest number among the years included in the index, surpassed only by the 110th Congress. Committees in the House, which reported 42 bills, were third highest among all of the congresses included in the index and higher than any of the last four congresses.

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.

By the end of March, the current Senate had taken just one cloture vote on legislation. While this seems low given that in the first quarter of the last Congress the Senate took 17 cloture votes, it is not unusually low. In the 113th Congress, the Senate took four cloture votes, in the 112th it took three, and in the 111th it took eight. The 110th Congress took 15 cloture votes, and the 104th took four. Overall, the Senate did not struggle to move forward with the legislation it considered during the first quarter of the current Congress.

The Senate also considered relatively few amendments during the first three months of 2017. Only seven amendments were considered on the floor by the index’s measure. Thirty-seven amendments were proposed on the floor overall, but the vast majority of these were withdrawn or ruled out of order by the chair. Most of the amendments—30 of the 37 proposed—were to the budget resolution for fiscal year 2017. Of the seven amendments considered, five were offered by the majority and two by the minority.

Amending 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.

So far, the House mostly considered legislation under closed rules and no legislation was considered under open rules.  Closed rules, where no amendments could be offered, accounted for 62.5 percent of rules. This is tied for the highest number of closed rules at this point among the congresses included in the index. The remaining 37.5 percent of rules were structured. This matches exactly with the numbers seen in the previous Congress, and reflects a historically longer trend away from open rules and toward more closed and structured rules.

When structured rules were in place, the Democratic minority received most of the amendments. Sixty-eight were offered by Democrats, 32 by Republicans, and three were offered on a bipartisan basis. 

Resolving Differences Between the Chambers

BPC recommends that important legislation should have the benefit of conference committees to reconcile differences between the House and Senate. Three months into the start of a new Congress is far too early to expect much, if any, use of conference committees, however. Not surprisingly, this Congress like many of its predecessors, has moved zero bills through conference. 

New Measures in the Healthy Congress Index

Two new measures have been added to the Healthy Congress index beginning this year.

First, the index will track developments in the budget and appropriations processes. 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.

The textbook process requires the president to submit a budget proposal to Congress by the first Monday in February. Congress then works to adopt a budget resolution, which sets overall spending limits for government programs, by April 15. Congress then begins writing appropriations bills to approve spending for specific government programs. Currently, programs are divided into 12 regular appropriations bills. These bills must be passed and signed into law by September 30 to avoid a gap in funding or shutdown of some or all government operations.

When these deadlines are not met, Congress often takes stopgap measures outside of the regular process. One option is to combine all or a number of the 12 appropriations bills into one bill, often called an omnibus or consolidated appropriations bill. Another option is to pass a continuing resolution to temporarily fund the government until a certain date.

BPC’s latest Healthy Congress Index provides some insight into how Congress may function over the next two years. 

As our timetable suggests, in recent years, the textbook process has broken down. The president and Congress have often missed their deadlines, shutdowns have occurred, and omnibus bills and continuing resolutions have become the norm.

Second, when possible, the index will provide data on programs receiving appropriations for which the underlying authorization has expired. This measure will give some sense of how diligently authorizing committees in Congress are working to provide oversight and review of government programs, and to renew, adjust, or eliminate authorizations for their funding. Initial data presented in this installment of the index suggests that over time, spending on programs with expired authorizations has grown as a percent over overall spending. This measure is likely only to be updated on an annual basis.

Conclusion

It is too early to judge the health of the legislative process just three months into a new Congress. However, the index provides some insight into how Congress may function over the next two years. So far, Congress is spending more time in Washington and committees are actively producing bills. The Senate—with a lack of filibusters on legislation—has had little difficulty moving forward with what legislation it has considered.  This trend is likely to change, though, as more significant and controversial legislation comes before it. The House has not opened up the amendment process thus far, and the Senate has not seen many amendments offered or considered. As the 115th Congress progresses, the index will continue to track these critical elements of the legislative process.

KEYWORDS: HEALTHY CONGRESS INDEX, 115TH CONGRESS