This edition is the fifth quarterly installment of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Healthy Congress Index, and the first for 2016. 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 2015 through the end of March 2016 of the 114th Congress, 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 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.
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 2016, the Senate has worked slightly more days than the 113th Congress and about as many as the 112th. The current Senate worked in Washington for 185 days from January 2015 through March 2016, compared with 172 and 184 days for the 113th and 112th Congresses, respectively. Up until the end of last year, the Senate had outpaced the two previous Congresses, but for now that trend seems to have lost steam. One hundred eighty-five working days at this point also falls short of the 45 to 50 working days per quarter recommended by CPR, and is below the number of days worked up to this point during the 111th, 110th, and 104th Congresses.
The House continues to show no improvement in the number of working days in Washington compared with recent Congresses. By the end of March, the House had 129 working days while the 113th Congress had 133 and the 112th had 135. This number of working days in Washington is significantly less than the number of working days seen during all of the covered Congresses prior to 2011 and far below CPR’s recommendations.
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. Three months into 2016, the process remains mostly closed. Compared with recent Congresses, a high number of bills were considered under closed rules, where no amendments may be offered, and fewer under open rules, where the bill is completely open to amendments.
Closed, no-amendment rules accounted for 44 of the 104 rules reported by the Rules Committee, while only 6 were completely open to amendment. The remaining 54 were considered under structured rules, meaning the only amendments allowed were those specified by the Rules Committee, which is controlled by the majority party. In the 113th Congress, 47 bills were considered under closed rules, 6 under open rules, and 46 under structured rules. In the 112th, there were 35 bills considered under closed rules, 17 open, and 48 structured.
In instances where structured rules were in place, both the minority and majority parties were afforded ample opportunities to offer amendments. Last year, Democrats offered 318 amendments under structured rules, and Republicans offered 205.
In 2015, many House members expressed concern about the high number of bills considered under closed rules, which has been an increasing trend over the last decade. Newly elected Speaker Paul Ryan pledged to improve in this area. It is still early to judge the efficacy of that pledge, and BPC will continue to monitor progress in that area through this index.
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 297 bills reported, had the second highest number among the years included in the index, surpassed only by the 110th Congress, which reported 361 bills. The House, with 373 bills reported, had the highest number of bills at this point among all of these Congresses.
On conference committees, BPC’s commission recommended that important legislation should have the benefit of conference committees to reconcile differences between the chambers. By March, the current Congress had only adopted four conference committee reports, which is a slight improvement over the two previous Congresses. The commission hopes the current Congress will continue to utilize this vital process throughout the rest of the year.
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.
As of March, there were a high number of cloture motions filed on legislation in the Senate. With 78 cloture votes, the Senate voted on one-third more cloture motions than either of the two preceding Congresses. The 110th Congress was the only one to surpass the 114th with 90 cloture votes at the same point in time. This high number of cloture votes was partly caused by protracted floor processes for the measures the Senate considered. In several instances, multiple votes were taken and/or multiple cloture motions filed on the same underlying measure.
On a more positive note, the amendment process in the Senate shows the chamber considering a much higher number of amendments than in the recent two Congresses. The current Senate considered 535 amendments by the end of March compared with 299 in the 113th Congress and 312 during the 112th . This improvement may portend the Senate moving toward historically higher numbers of amendments to levels such as those seen during the Congresses prior to the 112th.
As for the distribution of amendments, of the 535 considered, 287 were offered by the majority party and 248 by the minority party. This division means that approximately 54 percent were offered by Republicans and 46 percent by Democrats.
By March of its second year, the 114th Congress has maintained some of its improvements from its first year and remained behind on others.
Both chambers are about on par with their most recent predecessors in terms of the numbers of days spent working in Washington, but behind the norm prior to 2011 and what CPR recommends. Both chambers have also reported many more bills out of committee compared with recent previous Congresses. As for the use of conference committees, there was no change from the end of 2015 through March 2016, but overall this Congress has used them much less than the 111th , 110th , and 104th .
In terms of floor process, the Senate continues to see high numbers of cloture motions filed and votes on cloture, suggesting a lack of agreement on when or whether to move forward on legislation. The Senate considered a high number of amendments, especially when compared with recent years, and they were about evenly distributed between the majority and minority. The amendment process in the House is mostly restricted, with few opportunities for members to offer amendments to bills.
Unfortunately, there are fewer than normal days of session planned for the remainder of this year. The leadership of both chambers should reconsider their schedules now to ensure a healthy, functioning legislative process.