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New Data Shows Mixed Results for Congress on Reform Measures

By Michael Thorning

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

This is the third quarterly installment of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Healthy Congress Index. The index provides Americans with crucial metrics for evaluating this Congress’s ability to effectively legislate and govern and compares the data against past Congresses. The period covered by this installment is January through the end of September, three-fourths of the way through the First Session of the 114th Congress.

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 that reinvigorate a political process that works during a time of hyperpolarized politics.

The key measures of the index include: the number of days Congress spent on legislative business; how open the Senate was to debate and amendments; and how effectively the Congress followed regular order by allowing a substantial committee process, robust floor debate, and resolving of House and Senate differences in conference committees.

View 2015 Q3 data

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-fourths of the way through 2015, the Senate continues to work more days than in the two most recent previous Congresses. The current Senate worked in Washington for 118 days this year, compared with 99 and 109 days for the 113th and 112th Congresses, respectively. Though an improvement over recent Congresses, this still falls short of the 45-50 working days per quarter as recommended by CPR, and is below the number of days worked in the 111th, 110th, and 104th Congresses.

The House, as in previous quarters this year, has not seen much change in the number of working days compared with the two most recent Congresses. By the end of the third quarter, the current House had 95 working days while the 113th Congress had 98 and the 112th had 99. This is significantly less than the number of working days seen in the Congresses prior to the 112th.

Regular Order

Three index measures address the regular order of Congress: floor debate in the House, the committee process, and conference committees.

A key element to regular order in the House is the ability of members to offer and consider amendments on the floor. The first nine months of the 114th Congress continued to trend toward more closed rules, where no amendments may be offered, and fewer open rules, where the bill is completely open to amendments. This has led some House members, including those in the Republican majority, to feel they have been shut out of the amendment process.

Closed, no-amendment rules stand at 51 percent of all rules today compared to 39 percent and 35 percent in the previous two Congresses, respectively. In fact, this is the highest percent of closed rules among all of the years included in the index.

Of the 72 special rules reported by the Rules Committee in the current Congress, 37 have been completely closed to amendments, while only 6 have been completely open. The remaining 29 special rules have been structured, meaning the only amendments allowed are those specified by the Rules Committee, which is controlled by the majority.

In instances where structured rules were in place, the minority was not entirely cut out of the amendment process, though. This year, Democrats offered 173 amendments under structured rules, Republicans offered 120, and 51 were offered on a bipartisan basis.

An additional measure related to regular order is the number of bills reported by committees. In the current Congress, both chambers continue to report a high number of bills out of committee. The Senate, with 189 bills reported, has the highest number among the years included in the index. The House, with 214 bills reported, was only surpassed by the House during the 110th Congress, which reported 247 bills at this point.

On conference committees, BPC’s commission recommended that important legislation should have the benefit of conference committees to reconcile differences between the chambers. As of the end of the third quarter, the current Congress has still passed only one bill through this process—the congressional budget in May. 

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.

Nine months into the 114th Congress, the Senate continued to see a high number of cloture motions filed on legislation. With 51 cloture votes as of this quarter, the Senate voted on more than twice as many cloture motions as either of the two preceding Congresses, and was only nearly matched by the 110th Congress, which saw 48 cloture votes. This high number was partly caused by protracted floor processes for the measures the Senate considered this quarter. Of the 18 cloture votes this quarter, 10 were on two bills: the Iran nuclear agreement resolution of disapproval and the highway funding bill. Similarly in previous quarters, multiple cloture votes were related to the same underlying measure.

The amendment process in the Senate showed the chamber considering a much higher number of amendments than in the recent two Congresses. The current Senate considered 413 amendments by the end of September compared with 235 in the 113th Congress and 117 during the 112th. This improvement shows the Senate moving toward historically higher numbers such as those seen during the Congresses prior to the 112th.

As for the distribution of amendments, of the 413 considered, 216 were offered by the majority and 197 by the minority. This means that approximately 53 percent were offered by Republicans and 47 percent by Democrats.

It is also worth noting that just over one third of the 413 amendments were offered to the budget resolution in March. Similarly, in the 113th Congress, 104 of the 235 amendments considered at this point were to the budget resolution. Prior Congresses, however, showed much smaller proportions of amendments attributed to that measure.

Conclusion

Three-fourths of the way through 2015, the 114th Congress continues to demonstrate some elements of an improved legislative process while other areas fall short of what BPC recommends. Both chambers have reinvigorated a robust committee process. The Senate has increased the number of days working in Washington and considered a high number of amendments on the floor. At the same time, attempts to bring debate to a close in that chamber were higher than any other Congress.

The House has more room for improvement. In terms of days working in Washington, it is only about on par with recent years and below CPR’s recommendation. The current House also has the most closed amendment process in recent history, and a continuation of this trend would put it on track for the most closed amendment process ever.

View 2015 Q3 data

KEYWORDS: 114TH CONGRESS, HEALTHY CONGRESS INDEX