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New Congress, But Still Up to Its Old Tricks

The Brief

Our assessment of the 116th Congress is that both the House and the Senate are acting a lot like their recent predecessors. That’s good and bad.

The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives promised a more transparent, open process for legislation. They may get there as new rules of the House are fully executed. But after one quarter in control of the floor, it looks like structural changes to the way Congress operates continue to evolve slowly.

BPC’s Healthy Congress Index provides the first comprehensive assessment of the 116th Congress’s ability to effectively legislate and govern during its first three months in office. The data offer insights into how the current Congress is functioning compared with past Congresses.

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Our assessment of the 116th Congress is that both the House and the Senate are acting a lot like their recent predecessors. That’s good and bad.

Working Days in Washington

First, the good. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate worked a healthy numbers of days in Washington. Though often criticized for the time spent working in Washington compared to campaigning, recent Congresses have largely met the BPC standard during their first quarter. In 2019, the House is just shy of a five-day workweek standard, and the Senate is basically meeting our metric.

BPC recommends that Congress be in Washington conducting legislative business five days a week, 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 days working in Washington per quarter.

In the first quarter of 2019, the House of Representatives worked 40 days in Washington, just below the five-day workweek. Comparatively, the House worked about the same number of days—41—in Washington during the 115th Congress, but fewer days during the 114th, 113th, and 112th Congresses.

The Senate, in terms of working days, was also on par with its recent predecessors. The current Senate worked 44 days, virtually meeting the five-day workweek. This was also true during the 115th and 114th Congresses, when the Senate worked 43 and 44 days, respectively. It is also an improvement over the 113th and 112th Congresses, which worked 30 and 33 days respectively.

BPC’s Healthy Congress Index has shown that the first months of a new Congress often start with a robust calendar of working days, but by the end of a Congress, those numbers wane.

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*Excludes month of August for traditional summer recess

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*Excludes month of August for traditional summer recess

Time will tell as to whether the 116th Congress can keep up its current pace, or if it will slip as has happened in most prior Congresses.

An Open Legislative Process

Now, the bad.

BPC advocates for a more open amendment process that provides rank-and-file members from both parties the opportunity to influence policy. That’s not happening in any improved way compared to recent history. The House amendment process mostly prohibited Members from offering amendments to bills that came to the floor. The Senate saw an increase in the number of cloture votes on legislation over the last Congress and a tightly restricted amendment process for bills.

The House amendment process has been especially restricted in recent years, which led to promises of more openness upon change of party control in 2019. An open process (or “open rules”) places no limits on amendments and a restricted process (“structured” or “closed” rules) allows fewer or no amendments. Right now, the process isn’t any more open than in recent Congresses.

The amendment process in the House was mostly restricted in the first quarter of 2019. Members of the House were unable to offer amendments to more than half of the bills that came to the floor. Sixty-one percent of rules were closed and zero rules were open. Thirty-nine percent of rules were structured (i.e., specifying that only certain amendments can be considered).

A lack of open rules and high number of closed rules has become the norm in recent Congresses. In the 114th and 115th Congresses, the House also had zero open rules and more than 60 percent closed rules. Similarly, the 111th Congress had zero open rules and 54 percent closed rules while the 113th had zero open rules and 44 percent closed rules. Structured rules made up the remainder in each congressional session.

Amendments in the Senate are also an important aspect of regular order. They give members an opportunity to contribute to bills and participate in the legislative process. The Senate’s historically open amendment process has withered in recent years. There have been only 17 amendments considered in the first three months of 2019. That’s merely one-tenth of what has been allowed in other Congresses to this point.

The filibuster is another important minority right that the majority party bristles against as a tactic that slows down the actions of the majority. A cloture vote can end debate on a measure, effectively killing a filibuster when 60 senators agree to move forward.

Attempts to filibuster legislation ticked up in 2019, leading to 19 cloture votes on legislation. In the same period in 2017, the Senate took just one cloture vote. The 114th Congress (2015-2016) and the 110th Congress (2009-2010) saw similar numbers of cloture votes to the current year, but this Senate is well above the 113th, 112th, and 111th Congresses.

Among the 19 votes this year, cloture was invoked in seven instances and failed in 12, meaning that in most instances, attempts to filibuster were successful.

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