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Healthy Congress Index: 116th Congress off to a Slow Start

Washington, D.C. – The 116th Congress has been slow to implement structural changes that would result in a more open legislative process, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center’s latest Healthy Congress Index (HCI) data, released today. These findings come despite increased openness and robust debate being a key talking point within the new Democratic House majority.

The HCI, first developed in 2015, is a quarterly report that systematically evaluates Congress’s ability to legislate and govern based on key metrics looking at how open the Senate is to debate and amendments, how effectively Congress deliberates and resolves legislative differences between houses, and the number of working days Congress spends in Washington.

The report compares data from current and previous Congresses so that meaningful conclusions can be made about how to best improve the overall functionality of our legislative procedures. This dataset covers the period from the start of the 116th Congress through the end of March 2019.

BPC’s analysis finds that members of the House were unable to offer amendments on most of the bills that came to the floor. Concurrently, 61 percent of the rules were closed and none were open—a practice that has become more typical in recent Congresses.

The Senate also saw an increase in the number cloture votes on legislation when compared to the previous Congress, and a more restrictive amendment process effectively stifling constructive bipartisan debate.

Only 17 amendments have been considered thus far in the Senate, which is a steep decline from the mark in previous congresses. The data also showed an increase in filibuster attempts, resulting in 19 cloture votes—on seven of which cloture was invoked, and on 12 of which where it was not.

“The new congressional leadership promised to make Congress more deliberative and responsive to rank-and-file members, but they continue to hold a tight rein,” said Michael Thorning, associate director of BPC’s Congress Project. “Members of the House and Senate are eager to debate and amend bills, but the opportunities have not been there. An open dialogue, where both parties get to voice their opinions and concerns, is crucial to ensuring our democracy is working fairly and effectively.”

Despite this slower start to legislative transparency, both the House and Senate met BPC’s standard of the number of legislative working days spent in Washington. BPC recommends that members of Congress should remain in Washington conducting a five-day workweek for three consecutive weeks, followed by a week in their home districts or states. The House worked 40 days in Washington during the first quarter, just shy of the five-day workweek standard, which is similar to the 41 days spent in Washington by the 115th Congress.

The current Senate worked 44 days, essentially meeting the BPC standard. This was also true of the Senate during the first quarter of the last two congresses, when it clocked 43 and 44 days in Washington respectively.

Read the full Healthy Congress Index
Read our analysis of the data