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Healthy Congress Index: Improved Appropriations Process Leads to Better Functioning Congress

By Michael Thorning

Wednesday, November 28, 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. The data offer insights into how the current Congress is functioning compared with past congresses. 

This seventh report on the 115th Congress covers the entire first session and the first nine months of the second session, January 3, 2017, through September 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 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 

  • Congress enacted five of the 12 appropriations bills that fund the government before the start of fiscal year 2019, the highest since fiscal year 2008.
  • Amendments in the Senate, which had been lagging, were aided by the robust appropriations process. Amendments considered increased by one-third just in the third quarter of 2018, mostly on appropriations bills.
  • In the House, members were not able to  offer any amendments on 55 percent of bills, which came to the floor under closed rules.
  • The appropriations process increased the use of conference committees, which had mostly been sidelined in the 115th Congress, bringing the total to four.

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, 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.  

Congress had much more success than in recent years when it came funding the government for Fiscal Year 2019, which began on October 1, 2018. President Trump submitted the administration’s budget proposal basically on time, only seven days later than expected. Congress, however, did not adopt a budget resolution for FY2019, having missed the April 15, 2018, target date set by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Congress has foregone a budget for six of the previous 12 fiscal years. 

The House and Senate appropriations committees completed action on each of the 12 regular appropriations bills that fund respective areas of the government before the start of the new fiscal year. The House and Senate then each passed nine of the 12 bills in a series of three consolidated bills, sometimes called “minibuses”. The Senate has not passed such a high share of the 12 bills since 2010, when it passed six by the start of the fiscal year. This is also an improvement over recent years for the House, which has usually passed about half of the 12 bills before October 1. 

The House and Senate came to final agreement on and enacted five of the 12 appropriations bills before the start of the fiscal year. That compares to zero enacted by Congress for the nine previous fiscal years. Funding for the areas of the government covered by the seven remaining appropriations bills was enacted in a continuing resolution, which will expire on December 7, 2018. Congress will need to enact new funding at that time or face a partial government shutdown. 

Senate Debate: Cloture, Filibusters, 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.  

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—401 between January 2017 and the end of September 2018—of any of the periods tracked in the index. Comparatively, the 114th Congress considered 728, the 113th considered 352, and the 112th considered 478. During the 111th Congress, the Senate considered about twice as many amendments as the current Senate, and the 110th considered more than three times as many.  

However, the third quarter of 2018 saw greater activity in Senate amendments. In this quarter alone, the Senate considered 143, more than one-third of its total amendments for the current Congress. This was mostly due to the consideration of appropriations legislation, which accounted for 101 of the 143. Combined with amendments to appropriations bills passed in the second quarter, appropriations-related amendments account for 183 of the 401 considered since January 2017. 

The distribution of amendments between the majority and minority has been 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, 64 percent of amendments considered were sponsored by the majority Republicans and just 36 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 the last decade. The current Senate has taken 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 not successful 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. 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 47 percent closed rules. 

However, 45 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, four 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 six bills, the 113th on three bills, and the 112th on six bills. The 111th used conference committees for 13 bills and 110th for 14, while the 104th did so for 53.  

Three of the four conference committees occurred during the third quarter of 2018. Two on appropriations-related legislation and one on the annual defense authorization bill. 

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 285 days at this point. Between January 2017 and the end of September 2018, the House was at work in the Capitol for just 233 days, which is a slight improvement over comparable periods in recent congresses. The House spent 215 days in Washington during the 114th Congress, 225 days during the 113th, 221 days during the 112th, 240 days during the 111th, and 251 days during the 110th. During the 104th Congress, the House worked for 247 days. 

Since January 2017, the Senate worked 271 days in Washington, a notable improvement over the number of days in the 112th-114th congresses, but still slightly below BPC’s recommendation. The Senate in the 114th worked 250 days, the 113th worked 235, and the 112th worked 243 by this point in the two-year period. The Senate during the 111th Congress was in Washington for 302 days and the 110th for 295. During the 104th Congress, the Senate was at work in the Capitol for 320 days. Some of the Senate’s improvement this Congress can be attributed to its decision to work through a portion of the usual August recess. 

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 801 bills in the 115th Congress, the highest for any similar periods in the index. Senate committees reported 489 bills, the second-highest in the index. Both chambers have been on an upward trend in reporting bills since the 111th Congress.

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 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.

KEYWORDS: COMMISSION ON POLITICAL REFORM, HEALTHY CONGRESS INDEX