Why is Congress working?

Many in the media are beginning to notice that Congress is, in fact, working again. It’s negotiating deals, passing significant compromises, voting on amendments, and taking on serious issues. As the 114th Congress was being sworn in I outlined a few reasons for optimism and potential areas of compromise. That said, the 114th Congress is even surpassing those expectations. But the bigger question is: why is it working?

It should be expected that full Republican control of the Congress would help. Divided congressional control devastated legislative output. Historically, it is a very unusual institutional situation. When it does occur however, it tends to seriously depress output. Now that both chambers are under single party control, they are unsurprisingly working better together.

Unified control of Congress is also a major reason the executive and legislative branches of government are working better together. The Senate majority under Harry Reid effectively acted as a presidential veto for the last four years. It blocked House bills to repealing or defunding Obamacare, rolling back provisions in Dodd-Frank, obstructed several bills affecting energy regulation, prevented interferences in EPA regulations and alterations to the CFPB, and more. Many, in fact most, of these bills passed the House with large bipartisan majorities. However, if these bills were opposed by the president, they were conspicuously missing from the Senate calendar.

Now that the House and Senate are working together rather than simply checking one another, Congress once again has a negotiating position with the executive. Negotiations have shifted from the leaders’ offices on opposite ends of the Capitol to the offices at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s a major shift. Obama must now address Republican priorities and vice versa. As I pointed out in January, we should expect more vetoes – and the president has already doubled his veto total in three months – but we should also expect more compromise.

Is this a new era of bipartisanship? Don’t bet on it. While the doc-fix legislation, human-trafficking deal, Iranian negotiations, a deal on trade promotion authority and other bipartisan news dominated the headlines, the House inconspicuously passed a repeal of the estate tax, mortgage regulation changes, and financial services bills with very partisan majorities. And don’t forget that the human-trafficking filibuster is due to a breakdown in bipartisan staff relations and trust in the Senate.

So yes, we should applaud the 114th Congress and its leaders for its progress. However, this should not have been entirely unexpected. It’s just a departure from a previously dismal situation in the 112th and 113th Congresses. And unfortunately, do not expect it to continue for the full term of this Congress. There are more deals to be made but they will likely become increasingly rare as the congressional parties gear up for 2016.

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The budget rule is uncommon but (small ‘d’) democratic

The House budget proposal is being brought to the floor under an uncommon rule called the queen-of-the-hill. It’s being framed as quirky, odd and, at times, a signal of Republican dysfunction. However, it perhaps best described as a release valve.

Under the queen-of-the-hill process multiple amendments (which is a full substitute bill) are offered to the House for a vote. The amendment with the most votes wins (as long as it attains a majority). This gives members the opportunity to vote on multiple budgets.

The process emerged from a more heavy-handed rule called king-of-the-hill. Under king-of-the-hill rules, the last amendment to achieve a majority wins. Democrats created this approach in the 1980s to give members the opportunity to vote on multiple versions of the same bill. The rule makes several substitute amendments (referred to as amendments in the nature of a substitute) in order, and members can vote for or against each one. The catch was the last amendment to receive a majority was adopted. To win, all leaders needed to do was put the amendment they supported last in the voting sequence. As long as that version achieved a majority, it passed. At times, this led to the House adopting amendments that received fewer votes.

As a result Republicans created the queen-of-the-hill rule when they retook the House majority in 1995. It is similar to the king-of-the-hill rule but with a softened edge. It was used several times in the 104th and 105th Congresses to vote on welfare reform, constitutional amendment establishing term-limits, the balanced budget constitutional amendment, and for the Tax Code Termination Act of 1998 (for more on this read Sinclair’s Unorthodox Lawmaking). This gave members the same opportunity to take nuanced stands on the subject but allowed the amendment with the most votes to be adopted.

It’s often used as a release valve amid strong differences of opinion on an issue before the House. It is telling that the last two times the queen-of-the-hill process was proposed were on bills forced to the floor through the discharge process: the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Act of 2002 and the Continuity in Representation Act of 2004. Neither bill had overwhelming support from the House majority. Leaders prudently avoided the bills as long as they could to avoid dividing their caucuses until the discharge process forced their hands. (footnote: to my knowledge 2002 was the last time it was actually used. In 2004, it was proposed in a discharge petition but circumvented by leadership through the Rules Committee)

While the queen-of-the-hill process may be unusual, it’s a more democratic approach than many of the options available to the leadership. They could have changed the text of the budget resolution, or banned alternative amendments that would have significantly challenged their own. Not all issues are conducive to a queen-of-the-hill approach. So enjoy the votes and drama while it last. It’s unlikely to come around again for some time.

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With Ted Cruz’s announcement, the 2016 campaign is starting late, but more intense than ever

Like a bugle at the start of a horse race, Ted Cruz’s announcement yesterday signals the beginning of the 2016 presidential election.

Indeed, in the American political lexicon the term “horse race” refers to the media’s obsession with electoral prognostication.  Even casual observers know that political gamesmanship will be the prevailing narrative from now until November 2016.  Cue the endless discussion of “who’s up, who’s down” in a given day, week, or month.

If you think the media’s obsession with the so-called horse race has grown in recent elections, you get a cookie.  According to one study, for example, the media’s focus on presidential campaigns (as opposed to the candidates’ issue positions or background) nearly doubled from the 1960s to the 1990s.  It’s hard to overstate, but elections weren’t always like this.

2008 was a watershed moment in this horse race obsession.  For example, according to an analysis by Pew and Harvard University, in 2008 63% of campaign stories focused on “political and tactical aspects of the campaign” in stark contrast to just 15% that focused on the candidates’ policy views.  It concluded:

This election is unprecedented in terms of its early start and how much early coverage it received. By February 2007, nearly 11 months before any citizen would cast a primary vote or gather for a caucus, the race became one of the biggest stories in the news.

Let that sink in for a moment.  In 2007, nearly two years before the election was held, the media focused on campaigns, rather than actual issues, by a 4-1 margin.

All this begs the question:  How is the 2016 horse race shaping up?  (An alternative title for this post could be: “Let’s horse race the horse race.”)

On the one hand, it’s easy to juxtapose the start of two (or more) presidential campaigns: simply compare when the candidates declared their intentions to run.

In the 2012 presidential election, for example, Newt Gingrich was first out of the gate, announcing his plans on May 11th, 2011.  So by that token, 2016 is beginning early.

In the 2008 campaign, however, then-Senator Obama announced his candidacy on February 10th, 2007, beating Ted Cruz by well over a month.  Moreover, Obama was late to the game.  Hillary Clinton announced her intentions on January 20th, 2007; Biden entered the race on January 7th; and John Edwards announced his intentions on December 26th, 2006!

So, while it may “feel” like the 2016 campaign is starting earlier than normal, this is contradicted by the simple fact that in 2008, every major Democratic candidate had announced before Ted Cruz.  On average, in fact, the major Democratic candidates announced more than two months earlier than Cruz.

Of course, official announcements can be a poor measure of the nature of campaigns and campaign coverage.  For example, at present a half dozen major Republicans are in a nebulous “exploratory mode,” including Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush.  Living in South Carolina—with its “first in the South” primary—the 2016 campaign has clearly begun.

A more relevant metric is the volume of media coverage.

In the figure below, I report the volume of New York Times articles from January 1 the year before the election (2015, 2011, 2007… 1951) to March 23rd the same year (the date of Cruz’s announcement).  I used two search terms (with Boolean operators) to quantify the volume of campaign coverage:

  • presidential w/5 candidate
  • president AND 2016 w/10 campaign

The first search returns stories where the word “presidential” appears in an article within five words of the term “candidate.”  The second returns stories where the word “president” and the election year appear in an article within ten words of “campaign.”  Both search terms produce estimates of campaign coverage that correlate at 0.70.

In the figure, the data represent the relative volume of campaign coverage from 1951 to 2015. Higher values indicate a greater volume of campaigning articles relative to the volume of all political news articles.  Details below.


Despite the apparent “slow start” to the 2016 presidential race, we can see in the figure that the volume of campaign coverage is up 100% from this time in the 2012 cycle.  Even when compared to the 2008 election–a watershed moment in the horse race–the volume of campaign coverage is up 25%.  In the end, Americans are being inundated with more campaign coverage than ever!

In one important respect, the horse race is even worse than the raw numbers imply.  Recall that in 2008, every major Democratic candidate (save John Edwards) announced between January and March of 2007.  So, the media’s emphasis on presidential campaigns is up 25% from 2008 despite the fact that only one candidate has announced.

Additional findings

  • We can see that the volume of campaign coverage has grown exponentially since the 1950s. If we compare the five presidential campaigns from 1951 to 1967 to the five campaigns from 1999-2015, the volume of campaign coverage is up 200%.  If we restrict it to the first three and last three, campaign coverage is up almost 300%.
  • 1980 was anomalous compared to the previous seven presidential elections, with campaign coverage in 1979 doubling the average in the previous seven cycles.
  • As the Pew and Harvard study notes, 2008 seems to be the year when campaign coverage really spiked. We can see a modest increase between 1979 and 2003, but the single biggest election-to-election increase was from 2003 to 2007.
  • Generally, elections featuring two non-incumbents (2008, 2000, etc.) generate greater early campaign coverage (though clear exceptions exist, most notably 1980). Obviously, this is a reason why 2016 is shaping up to be a big cycle.

In conclusion, while Cruz’s announcement starts the horse race later than in 2008, the 2016 campaign is already more intense at the same point in time despite the absence of any candidates.


Methods: First, the number of stories containing each search term was compiled, divided by its average over the entire time series, and then added together in one summary index.  Second, because the data spans the entire post-War period (from the 1952 campaign to 2016 campaign) it is important to account for the baseline level of political news coverage.  For example, a higher volume of campaign stories in 2015 could reflect greater attention to politics in general compared to 1951.  In some respects, this also creates a baseline level of political news reporting.  For this, I simply used the volume of stories containing the words “politics” or “congress.”  I then created a “baseline” index in the same manner as the campaign index.  Finally, I divided the campaign index from the baseline index such that higher values indicate a greater relative share of campaigning news stories.  Note that the same results are evident we use the raw volume of campaigning new stories, without diving by the total number of political news stories.  If anything, the estimates reported in the figure are conservative.

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Most budgets lack details. That doesn’t mean they’re ineffective.

Since the House budget resolution dropped yesterday a lot of complaints have surfaced about its lack of detail. Lack of detail have some claiming it abandons Paul Ryan’s budget, – even though it is remarkably similar – and many pundits and politicians lamenting the vague character of the House Republicans’ proposal.

There are a lot of reasons to criticize budgets. Lacking policy details isn’t one of them. The teeth of the budget are not in its policy. It is in the processes it establishes for legislation for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The practice of including policy statements in budget resolutions is actually a relatively new one. According to a CRS report, since 1994 congressional budget resolutions have included an average of 22 declaratory statements. Between 1976 and 1993, congressional budget resolutions included only an average of 3 policy statements. The fact that the number of statements have increased as the parties polarized reinforces what everybody already knows: budgets are political documents. They may express party goals but those statements do not bring Congress any closer to enacting those provisions.

The main reason budget resolutions are not policy documents is because the policy statements found in them are nonbinding. They have the same legal effect as nonbinding resolutions expressing the sense of Congress, the House, or the Senate. Vaunted legislation passed with the same nonbinding status have included welcoming India’s prime minister to the U.S., authorizing concerts by the National Symphony on Capitol grounds, expressing a sense of the Congress that the U.S. should take a strong role in implementing decisions made at the Earth Summit, and thanking congressional colleagues for the manner in which they presided over the chamber. The policy statements in the budget resolutions may express a sense of the chamber or Congress, but they have no procedural or legal weight. It’s simply a statement.

The real teeth in budget resolutions are in the processes put in place when passed. First, budget resolutions set the topline spending and revenue numbers. Once passed by Congress future legislation has to conform to those numbers. All appropriations bills, amendments, and committees must fit within the 302(a) number prescribed by the resolution.

Second, the budget committees can instruct other committees in Congress to find savings in existing law and provided the committees meet the numbers, Congress could pass those bills with a simple majority in both chambers (i.e. filibuster-proof legislation). This process is known as reconciliation. The annual budget resolution outlines this annual process, detailing which committees can change government spending without worrying about a filibuster in the Senate. If you want to save money by tailoring Medicare and Medicaid, this is where you do it. For example, this year’s House budget gives instructions to 13 House committees to find a minimum of $4.75 billion in savings. If the committees meet the budget guidelines of the instructions, they can use reconciliation, avoid a filibuster, and pass the bill. However, how the committees find the savings is left to the committee of jurisdiction.

For example, the House proposed budget that dropped yesterday instructed Ways and Means to find $1 billion in savings over the next 10 years. Despite the fact that that the Budget Committee included policy statements expressing an interest in changing Medicare and Medicaid, they cannot force Ways and Means to introduce policy doing that. If Ways and Means finds $1 billion in savings in tariffs, there is nothing the budget committees can do about that. That bill will still go through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process.

There are lots of reasons to debate the budget resolution. We can argue the merits of the House and Senate numbers and whether or not they actually accomplish what they claim to do. But “lacking policy detail” is not a great reason for criticism. That’s largely out of the budget committees’ hands. Regardless, the numbers and processes they put in place make it a very important document; just don’t expect it to have a lot of policy details.

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House process quick hit: Overthrowing the Speaker.

As rumors swirl and fade about Boehner’s removal from the speakership, it’s a good time to clarify a few things about House process and its history.

No speaker has ever been removed from office mid-Congress. If members want to remove a speaker from office, they would need to make a motion to declare the chair vacant. That motion has never succeeded.

That includes Speaker Cannon (R-IL). Several news outlets have said the motion to remove the speaker was invoked against Cannon. That’s not accurate. Cannon’s “overthrow” did not remove him from office. Rather, he was “overthrown” because his power as Speaker was significantly curtailed. In addition to being speaker, Cannon was the chair of the Rules Committee and was also responsible for assigning all members and chairs to each standing committee of the House. Both of these tools gave him exceptional power to control House business. On March 17th, George Norris (R-NE) offered a simple resolution to strip both powers from Speaker Cannon on a week that many of Cannon’s allies were missing from Congress largely due to St. Patrick’s Day.

After the resolution passed two days later, Cannon, to the surprise of practically everybody in the chamber, entertained a motion to declare the office the Speaker vacant. That motion failed. In other words, Republicans did not want to remove Cannon from office. They just didn’t want him exercising as much power as he had during his tenure.

The surprising part of this story is not that Cannon was not removed. The surprise was that Cannon entertained a motion that could remove him from office at all. House rules lean heavily in the speaker’s favor. This is why Boehner will likely remain Speaker in the 114th unless he voluntarily steps down.

Speakers have the right of recognition. They choose who will be recognized to make a motion from the members on the floor. Without the Speaker’s recognition, members can’t do much of anything. Speakers can also actively ignore members they do not want to make a motion. If the speaker does not like the reason the member has sought recognition, he or she can simply refuse to recognize them. Without recognition even a privileged motion goes nowhere. This makes removing the speaker through the motion to declare the office vacant highly unlikely because the speaker or his designee would have to allow the motion to be put before the House in the first place.

Procedurally, the more likely scenarios would involve intense collusion between Republicans and Democrats over the course of several votes. While it’s possible, I don’t believe Pelosi, Democrats or the faction that want a new Speaker are willing to go to those lengths. Though if it did happen, you’d be watching one of the more exception episodes in House history.

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Quick process hit: Senate will vote on a clean DHS bill. Why that looked likely last Monday.

Today Senate Republicans are moving forward on the inevitable. They will vote on a clean DHS funding bill with no immigration riders attached. With time running out they struck a deal with Democrats, which Minority Leader Harry Reid agreed to a couple hours ago.

The key point here is that DHS will come up for a clean vote. There will be no immigration vote or amendment included in the deal. Future responses to the President’s immigration action will come up for a vote through the cloture process later this week.

A clean DHS funding bill was a virtual certainty after the Senate recessed on February 12th. Failing to invoke cloture before the recess put Senate Republicans in an unwinnable situation. With time running out there was only one procedural avenue available to them to avoid a DHS shutdown: unanimous consent. That requires the consent of all 46 Democrats to proceed. If McConnell’s statement was any indication, Democratic consent was contingent on a clean DHS bill with no immigration votes.

It’s unclear if Republicans were put in this position through a botched strategy or conference politics. Democrats refused to proceed to the bill. Presumably, they would have continued to filibuster until the immigration riders were stripped. It’s possible – but certainly not clear – that if Republicans compromised earlier in the process they could have found a package that would have attracted six Democrats to invoke cloture. That’s purely speculative and we will know for sure in the coming days as McConnell moves forward on the separate bill responding to Obama’s executive action. Regardless, their current position gives them no negotiating leverage. As soon as the Senate gaveled-in Monday Republicans’ hands were tied. The next step was to either let DHS funding lapse or forego attempts to respond to Obama through DHS appropriations.

Many on the right may accuse McConnell of caving to Democrats before the shutdown. However, by blinking first he’s biting the bullet and moving the Congress closer to funding DHS. Whether the House follows suit remains to be seen.

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Democrats gained even more power in the DHS/immigration debate, and it happened last week

It’s well known that any Republican attempt to reverse Obama’s executive action would be an uphill battle. Because any congressional response required a legislative fix, Republicans face a likely insurmountable veto, even if they managed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. All the checks of government disadvantage Republicans’, and today we see that they have been unable to overcome either obstacle.

However, Republicans are in an even worse position today than they were a week ago when they were in recess. Funding for the Department for Homeland Security expires Friday. Without action 30,000 DHS employees will be furloughed and roughly 200,000 DHS agents will work without pay. DHS funding needs a quick fix. The problem is Senate process doesn’t provide one.

The best possible solution has already been attempted four different times and failed. In reality, Republicans needed to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed – the motion on which they’ve failed four times – by February 9th (if they still planned to recess last week). The process of creating a cloture petition, letting it ripen, voting on the cloture petition, and letting all post-cloture debate expire takes a week’s time. On any given bill, there are two filibusterable motions. That means Republicans needed to first invoke cloture two weeks ago in order to set up another successful cloture vote yesterday. None of the steps necessary to cut off debate have been successful.

So where does that leave Republicans? They’re in a very bad negotiating position. Basically, there is not a normal process that Republicans can use to pass a clean DHS funding bill, a short-term CR, or any other DHS bill before the shutdown on Friday. The only way left to avoid a shutdown is through what’s called unanimous consent. If all senators agree on a motion or purpose moving forward, Republicans can avoid a shutdown. However, getting every Democrat (and Republican) to agree to move forward will come with strings attached.

In other words, about a week ago Republicans lost the little leverage they had in the debate to response to Obama’s executive action. Democrats have gained more leverage in the debate because all processes Republicans could have used are now gone. Their inability to craft an agreement that could get six Democratic votes has cost them the bargaining leverage they had a week ago. In sum, this week Democrats have even more negotiating power than they had the last week the Senate was in session. Now Republicans need agreement from all Democrats, not just six, on the terms moving forward.

This gives Democrats an interesting choice. Either they compromise with Republicans and find an agreement to fund DHS or they can let it expire and hang a partial government shutdown that threatens domestic security on Republicans.

Many people believed Harry Reid was an overly strong majority leader, stifling debate and preventing amendments. This week we’ll see if Harry Reid is as ruthless in the minority as he was in the majority.

Posted in Filibuster, Legislative Politics, Legislative Procedure | 1 Comment