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The World’s Slowest Deliberative Body

The U.S. Senate is generally understood to be a deliberate and slow-moving institution. Senators have increasingly expressed displeasure, however, with the amount of time votes are consuming on the floor. In March 2021, the Senate broke the record for longest vote ever at more than 11 hours, and in January, the Senate held open a lengthy four-hour vote. Tensions boiled over for some senators in early February, and shortly thereafter a bipartisan group of nearly 70 senators (35 Republican, 33 Democrat) endorsed procedural changes to reduce how long votes take.

These senators may be right to complain, because our analysis shows that the Senate is spending considerably more time on floor votes than in recent years.

While some business in the Senate is conducted relatively quickly via unanimous consent, roll call votes themselves take more time and can require every member to come to the floor. Voting often entails a long, tedious process where the floor clerks read out the names of each individual Senator, many of whom are not in the chamber all at once, and then records each vote as it is cast. This process is known as roll call voting.

In recent years, the average time per vote in the Senate has increased dramatically. Using data obtained from C-SPAN, we see that the average time spent per roll call vote increased by over 50% when comparing the 113th Congress (2013-2014) to the current 117th Congress.

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Average Time Per Roll Call Vote in the Senate

Overall, the Senate is spending much more time on votes than usual. During the 113th-115th Congresses, the Senate spent between 11-13% of its total floor time on votes. The rest was spent in debate or waiting for other activities to occur. That nearly doubled during the 116th Congress to 20%. Notably, because this data compares only the first 410 days of each Congress, the Senate was not yet experiencing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the institution to adopt even slower voting methods for much of 2020.

Hourly Breakdown of Senate Activity (113th-117th Congress)

Source: C-SPAN

The amount of time spent on votes jumped again during the 117th Congress. Since 2020, the Senate has spent 30.8% of all its time voting on legislation, an increase of 50% over the 116th and almost three times as much as the 113th. And while pandemic safety precautions may seem like a reasonable explanation, any casual observer of the Senate floor over the last year can see that its stringent voting processes are no longer in place. Understandably, senators are feeling frustrated. Often, just one or two senators slow the vote down for the rest of their colleagues, keeping them from moving on to other business.

This is less of a problem for the House of Representatives. The House, which uses an electronic voting system adopted in the 1970s, can quickly tabulate the votes of all 435 members far quicker than the Senate. Members come to the floor, insert an identification card into a voting device, and cast their vote. The House has had its own instances where votes were held open for extended periods, including in November when it broke its own record for longest vote. But the regularity and extent of the problem, and accompanying frustration of members, does not seem to be as intense as in the Senate.

The relative efficiency of the House voting system has inspired some Senators to consider transitioning to the same system, though no serious effort to do so has been attempted. Recently, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the House has (controversially) allowed its members to vote by proxy, though it’s unclear how long the measure will last. The Senate has no such provisions in place.

While the request from nearly 70 senators to make voting more efficient might be helpful, the Senate has little to no process in place for considering such modernizations. The Senate Rules Committee likely has jurisdiction to debate it, but the committee has mostly been consumed by investigating the January 6th attack on the Capitol and exploring expansive democracy reforms.

In the past, the Senate has been a part of joint committees with the House to identify and adopt new ways of business in Congress, but the last effort was in the early 1990s. The House, on the other hand, stood up a very successful Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in 2019 and it has recommended more than 100 ways to improve operations of that chamber.

The bipartisan petition to streamline roll call voting in the Senate should be a call to action for the Senate to begin a top-to-bottom examination of ways to modernize the chamber. The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress provides a viable model to examine and rectify these issues, and the Senate would be well advised to consider mirroring this effort.

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