This is the fourth quarterly installment of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Healthy Congress Index for 2015. 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 December 2015, which marks the end of 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.
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.
At the end of 2015, the Senate had worked more days than did the two most recent previous Congresses. The current Senate worked in Washington for 154 days in 2015, compared with 138 and 147 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 saw no improvement in the number of working days in Washington compared with recent Congresses. In 2015, 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 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. The first year of the 114th Congress saw a mostly closed process there. Compared with recent Congresses, more 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 42 of the 88 reported by the Rules Committee, while only 6 were completely open to amendment. The remaining 40 were considered under structured rules, meaning the only amendments allowed are those specified by the Rules Committee, which is controlled by the majority party. In the 113th Congress, 40 bills were considered under closed rules, 6 under open rules, and 40 under structured rules. In the 112th, there were 33 bills considered under closed rules, 15 open, and 35 structured.
In instances where structured rules were in place, both the minority and majority were afforded ample opportunities to offer amendments. Last year, Democrats offered 239 amendments under structured rules, Republicans offered 189, and 115 were offered on a bipartisan basis.
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. Speaker Paul Ryan pledged to improve in this area. If that does not occur, the current House risks considering the most bills under closed rules in history.
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 255 bills reported, had the second highest number among the years included in the index, surpassed only by the 110th Congress, which reported 335 bills. The House, with 300 bills reported, was also only surpassed by the 110th Congress, which reported 330 bills in its first year in session.
On conference committees, BPC’s commission recommended that important legislation should have the benefit of conference committees to reconcile differences between the chambers. The final quarter of 2015 saw three bills move through conference, bringing the total for the year up to four. This recent increase in conference committees is a heartening improvement and the commission hopes it will continue in the future.
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.
In the first year of the 114th Congress, a high number of cloture motions were filed on legislation in the Senate. With 63 cloture votes, the Senate voted on more than twice as many cloture motions as either of the two preceding Congresses. The 110th Congress nearly matches the 114th with 61 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 this year. 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 482 amendments by the end of 2015 compared with 256 in the 113th Congress and 257 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 483 considered, 262 were offered by the majority and 221 by the minority. This division means that approximately 54 percent were offered by Republicans and 46 percent by Democrats. It is also worth noting that approximately one third of the amendments considered this year were offered to the budget resolution in March. A similarly high number of the amendments considered during first year of the 113th Congress were also to the budget resolution. Prior Congresses, however, showed much smaller proportions of amendments attributed to that measure.
At the end of its first year, the 114th Congress has shown signs it is conducting business differently than its recent predecessors. The legislative process has begun to improve in some areas while other elements have seen little to no improvement. Those parts of the process that take place off the floor of the House and Senate improved, but more often than not it was on the floor where gridlock remained on display.
The chambers chose conference committees as a means of resolving differences on legislation more often than in the recent past. Both chambers’ committees also reported significantly more bills. The House continued to trail BPC’s recommended number of working days in Washington and considered a high number of bills under closed rules, giving members no opportunity to amend them on the floor. The Senate spent more days working in Washington and considered many more amendments compared with recent years. At the same time, more votes to end debate—and stymie any filibusters—were taken than at this point in any of those years.
As 2016 begins to unfold and the pressures of a presidential election year loom over the 114th Congress, its leaders and members will need to pay particular attention to the number of days spent working in Washington and the way business is conducted to keep this progress moving forward.