Congress may be getting 'healthier,' new study finds

Lawmakers spending more days at work and more amendments allowed in the Senate are two key areas of progress noted by a new 'Healthy Congress' index by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky (l.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio stand together at a ceremony before the signing of the bill authorizing expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline, at the Capitol in Washington, on Feb. 13, 2015. To show that Republicans can govern, Boehner and McConnell said after the election that they wanted the new GOP-controlled Congress to return to “regular order.”

The dysfunctional Congress is creaking its way toward greater workability, with lawmakers putting in more days in Washington and the Senate allowing more input and debate – key bridges to compromise.

This progress is the finding of the new “Healthy Congress Index” by the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank. The quarterly report aims to measure how well Congress is working by recording how many legislative days it is in session, numbers of filibusters, amendments, and other criteria. Armed with those metrics, the think tank says, the public can better hold lawmakers accountable. 

“I’m pleased to see early signs of progress toward a better-functioning Congress, but there’s still a long way to go,” said former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, a co-chair of the think tank’s bipartisan Commission on Political Reform, which recommended the measurements last June.

In the first three months of this year, both the House and Senate met for more legislative days than the last two Congresses – but previous Congresses have them beat. The Senate never did move to a five-day work week, the way that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky wanted to.

Where he has made inroads is in allowing far more amendments to bills. Amendments allow the Senate to breathe – they are ways for lawmakers to vent, to make political points, and also to compromise on and improve legislation. 

In the first quarter, the Senate considered 202 amendments, with 105 offered by Democrats and 97 by Republicans – more amendments than any Congress going back to 2007.

Many factors contribute to gridlock and hyper-partisanship in Congress, and a closed process is one of them. It breeds anger, distrust, and then more gridlock.

“We have been in a frustratingly vicious cycle for a number of years in which dysfunction begets anger begets partisanship begets dysfunction,” says Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

To show that Republicans can govern, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio and Senator McConnell said after the election that they wanted the new GOP-controlled Congress to return to “regular order.” 

That means allowing committees, instead of the leadership offices, to do the sausage making; opening up both floors to more debate and amendments, and resolving differences between the two bodies through conference committees. 

“We're not through getting back to normal," McConnell told USA Today in a recent interview. He said he wanted to see the committees thriving as they used to. That’s beginning to happen, with Senate committee bills on Iran, trade, cyber-security, and education expected to soon hit the floor. 

The House is another matter, according to the index. It’s designed to be a majority-rule body, but even so, debate on the House floor is not as open as it should be, the think tank finds. None of the rules governing floor debate in the House were fully open to amendments, which causes great howls of protest from Democrats. 

Interestingly, the index doesn’t measure nominations, which have turned into a fiercely partisan issue, as seen by the delay of a Senate vote to approve Loretta Lynch as the new attorney general, replacing Eric Holder.

McConnell has been holding up the vote until after senators pass an anti-human trafficking bill, which has gotten bogged down in a partisan fight over abortion language. Republicans have also “slow walked” other nominations, according to Democrats. Senate minority leader Harry Reid is now considering a rare parliamentary maneuver to bring her nomination to the floor.

Three months’ worth of metrics is not enough to judge the performance of Congress, according to the index analysis. And the American public has not yet noticed any improvement, with only 11 percent approving of the job that Congress is doing, according to an April poll by Suffolk University/USA Today.

 “Nonetheless, there are signs that Congress is slowly beginning to move in the right direction,” the index analysis concludes.

Like the Capitol dome that’s under major repair and surrounded by scaffolding, what’s happening underneath it is a work in progress.

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