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Division, distraction, and delay in the Senate: the unusual 113th Congress

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It's no news that the Senate has become increasingly embroiled in partisan bickering over the past 20 years. In particular, "gridlock" in the Senate has slowed the processing of normal business, leading to pathologies such as high vacancy rates in executive branch and judicial posts and the occasional government shutdown.

Here, I explore a couple of interesting facts about this dynamic. I consider the past 12 years of Congresses (the 109th, in 2005-'06, through the current 114th, as of May 12, 2016).

The short version is that the 113th (and, to some degree, the 112th) Congress was very unusual and might suggest that procedural reforms will again become a topic of discussion after the November elections.

In terms of the productivity of these Senates, the next figure illustrates how many recorded ("roll call") votes were taken in each Congress.

Roll Calls by Congress

With the exception of the 112th Congress, the Congresses look pretty similar. I note this because the remainder of the analysis will look at proportions for various types of roll call votes in an attempt to gauge if, and how, the Senate's business has been changing over the past decade.

Cloture

The Senate is famous for the filibuster, a term that describes various tactics that any member(s) can use to delay or block the Senate from taking a vote on a bill or nomination. Cloture is a procedure requiring 60 votes that effectively blocks any further attempts to filibuster the bill or nomination in question. Thus, cloture votes signal either ongoing or foreseen obstruction on the matter at hand. The figure displays the proportion of roll call votes in each Senate that dealt with cloture.

Cloture Votes By Congress

The 113th Senate stands out: Nearly one-third of all roll call votes dealt with cloture (42 percent of the roll call votes in the second session, in 2014, dealt with cloture). Things have returned to closer to "normal" in the current Congress, but the proportion of voting dedicated to cloture is still quite high (more than 25 percent of the 71 votes to date in the current session have dealt with cloture).

Processing business

In the Senate, the very first step of several required to get to a vote on a bill or nomination is known as the "motion to proceed." Essentially it represents a formal decision by the chamber to begin discussing a matter. In normal times, this motion — offered by the Senate majority leader — is generally pro forma.

If the minority wishes to obstruct business, however, it can force a roll call vote on the motion. The following figure illustrates how many of the roll call votes were recorded on this motion in each of the Congresses.  (Some of these votes include cloture votes on the motion to proceed.)

Votes on Motions to Proceed

This type of obstruction was quite rare until 2011. Following the 2010 midterm elections, the GOP recaptured control of the House, and the Democrats barely hung onto control of the Senate. In the 112th Congress, the motion to proceed became an active battleground, accounting for more than 10 percent of all roll call votes.

The business of the Senate has become increasingly focused on what will be voted on. Roll call voting is focusing on a narrower (and slower) legislative agenda. This is evident in the nature of the types of votes that actually concern substantive legislation.

Amendments

Amendment voting represents one measure of how "bipartisan" a Senate is: Because amendments are also subject to filibuster, each roll call on an amendment essentially indicates that the parties were "working together" in the sense of not obstructing each other's attempts to get a recorded vote on some issue. (It is key to note that many amendments are passed by voice vote or unanimous consent and thus do not appear in this data.)

The following figure illustrates the proportion of roll call votes recorded on amendments in the Senate in each of the Congresses.

Votes on Amendments

Again, the 113th Congress stands out — in fact, in the second session of the 113th Congress, fewer than 7 percent of the roll calls dealt with amendments.

Similarly, the 113th Congress did not record many votes on actual legislation. The next figure illustrates the proportion of roll call votes recorded on "final passage" of legislation. Few roll call votes are on final passage in any given Congress, but the 113th again stands out as a laggard on this measure of getting things done, with fewer than 4 percent of all roll calls dealing with final passage.

Votes on Final Passage

So what were they voting on?

Simply put, during the 113th Congress, the Senate spent a lot of time voting on nominations, as displayed in the next figure. More than half of the roll call votes cast in the Senate during 2013 and 2014 dealt with a presidential nomination in some form or another. About 40 percent of those votes were to invoke cloture on the nomination in question, in line with then-Majority Leader Harry Reid's attempts to confirm the backlog of President Obama's nominees. With the benefit of hindsight, the rate of these votes in the 112th Congress hinted at the fight(s) that were about to emerge.

Somewhat ironically, given the fight over Obama's nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, the current Senate rate is back in line with earlier Congresses.

Votes on Nominations

What's the big picture?

As I wrote about last week, voting in the Senate — particularly among the GOP in the 114th Congress — is becoming less predictable in some (but not all) ways. Partisanship still describes most votes on most matters. But the votes that are occurring are of a different type than in the recent past.

This boils down to position taking in two ways. First, senators of both parties are increasingly focused on avoiding "tough" votes and, because the two parties find different issues "tough," on trying to force the other side to take such votes. Second, the Senate has increasingly become an active arena for fights "about" the executive and judicial branches.  Nomination battles have evolved from "simple" ideological fights into near litmus tests of senators' resolve and commitment to various core principles.

From a normative standpoint, this evolution is not necessarily a bad thing (though the collapse of comity is tough to watch). The Senate is not engaging in activities beyond its constitutional remit: It is divided and struggling within the confines of its own procedures and the larger political environment of the nation.

What is key, and hard to gauge from the outside, is the degree to which senators feel that the fights — particularly those that lead to cloture votes and other procedural delays — are hampering the body's ability to process what they perceive to be their proper workload. To the degree that they do, the unusual structure of business in the 113th Congress suggests that serious, bipartisan discussion of cloture reform will emerge again soon.