How to measure a dysfunctional, gridlocked Congress

Earlier this month, Brookings’s Democracy Dashboard released a new collection of indicators focusing on institutional functioning and capacity.  By assembling a range of data in one place, researchers and other interested parties can assess trends in the behavior of the president, the judiciary, and Congress. 

Today, we’ll spend some time with a few of the Dashboard’s indicators on the last of these institutions, specifically the Senate.  The Dashboard presents data from the last three Congresses, spanning 2007 to 2014.  What has the Senate been up to during that period?  According to some indicators, not a lot.  We see, for example, that in each session since 2007, the Senate met for fewer days than it did in the previous one.  Obviously, when the Senate spends fewer days in session, it has less time available for legislating, potentially reducing the number of bills that it takes up.  What’s more, when the chamber is pressed for time, it increases the possibility that it will have to resort to omnibus legislating, where many bills (especially spending measures) are rolled together into a single package.

We also see that, since 2007, the number of conference reports issued has also declined, with only four reported in 2013-14.  Conference committees represent one of the ways that the House and Senate can work out their differences when the two chambers have passed similar, but not identical, versions of a bill.  They are not the only way that an agreement can be reached, but, as I wrote in December, they do represent an important component of a well-functioning legislative process.  The Senate changed its rules in 2013 to make it easier to use the formal conference process, but that does not appear to have had been associated with a large increase in the number of times the two chambers use the procedure.     

Cloture motions, meanwhile, are often used by Senate observers to capture the minority party’s attempts to block the majority’s efforts at legislating.  The Dashboard presents data on how many of these motions have been voted on in the Senate.  In general, these votes fail more often than they pass—with one key exception.  In November 2013, the Senate “went nuclear,” reducing the cloture threshold from three-fifths to a simple majority for nominations to executive branch positions and judicial appointments below the Supreme Court.  During the rest of the 113th Congress, 58 percent of the cloture votes were on nominations, and 78 percent of those were approved.  Cloture votes on non-nomination measures, meanwhile, continued to fail more often than they succeeded.  Between December 2013 and December 2014, there were 110 cloture votes on matters not involving nominations, with only 45 percent of those gaining approval.  The choice by then-Senate majority Democrats to alter the underlying rules, then, helps explain what might otherwise look like an indication of increased Senate productivity.

While these indicators paint the Senate in a less-than-positive light, it is important to note that, during the current Congress, the chamber, working with the House, has managed to make progress on a number of important issues, including a major reform to Medicare payments, a multi-year transportation bill, and a reauthorization of federal K-12 education programs last year and an overhaul of chemical safety legislation this year.  As the Senate heads into a final push of activity before a seven week recess this summer, it has a number of high-profile measures on its agenda, including a spending bill that includes money to address the Zika epidemic and a package dealing with Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.  Will it manage to overcome the dynamics reflected in the Dashboard data, or will it find a way forward?