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With Only Weeks Left Before Election, Congress Underwhelms on Legislative Process

Monday, August 15, 2016

Washington, D.C. – As public attention shifts to the campaign trail—and despite public commitments to return to “regular order” at its start—the 114th Congress has not appreciably improved on recent predecessors with respect to the number of working days in Washington and the openness of the legislative process, according to the sixth quarterly update to the Healthy Congress Index released today by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Some early signs of progress toward more working days and a more open process seem to have dissipated. Only the committee process in both chambers and the number of amendments considered in the Senate continue to show signs of progress. And with only a few weeks of legislative business remaining on the schedule, BPC experts say that reality is unlikely to change.

“This Congress has a mixed record on regular order. Congressional committees have been productive and Senate debate improved by an increase in amendments considered,” said John Fortier, director of the Democracy Project at BPC. “But there is little progress in increasing the days Congress is working in DC and far too few open rules in the House.”

“Congress is—quite simply—stuck,” said former Sen. Olympia Snowe, a BPC senior fellow and co-chair of the Commission on Political Reform (CPR). “The lone bright spot I see in these numbers is a robust committee process, with a high number of bills being reported out of committee in both houses. But, regrettably, there isn’t much else here to feel optimistic about.”

The Healthy Congress Index, launched in 2015, tracks the number of days Congress spends on legislative business, how open the Senate is to debate and amendments, and how effectively Congress follows regular order by allowing a robust committee process, floor debate, and conference committees to resolve legislative differences between the houses. Both the current Congress and recent congresses are measured to provide historical benchmarks.

The findings of the newest quarterly update to the Healthy Congress Index include:

  • The Senate’s 229 working days in Washington thus far put it slightly ahead of its two most recent predecessors but behind the 104th, 110th, and 111th Congresses, and well below the 45 to 50 working days per quarter recommended by CPR. The House has worked the lowest number of days of any Congress tracked in the index, with only 193.
  • The House continues to follow a mostly closed process for members to offer and consider amendments to legislation on the floor. Only eight of 129 rules reported by the Rules Committee qualify as completely open to amendment. The rest were either closed or “structured”, with only pre-approved amendments allowed.
  • The Senate has taken 105 cloture votes thus far—about twice as many as either of the two preceding congresses and the highest number of any Congress tracked in the index.
  • Both houses are reporting a high number of bills out of committee. The Senate had the second-highest total of any tracked Congress with 402 reported bills, while the House had the highest count in the index with 515.

Read the full results of the index and further analysis on BPC’s website.

The index is part of BPC’s long-term effort to bring accountability to Congress and answer the question: “How is Congress governing?” The criteria are based on key recommendations released last year by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform, which was created to investigate the causes and consequences of America’s partisan political divide and make recommendations to reinvigorate a political process that can work during a time of hyper-polarized politics.

The index compiles and analyzes data from a variety of publicly available records for both the current and past congresses, including the Congressional Record and House and Senate daily calendars. The index will next be updated in the fall.

KEYWORDS: 114TH CONGRESS, HEALTHY CONGRESS INDEX, JOHN FORTIER, OLYMPIA SNOWE