The demise of debate in Congress

Getty Images

At its best, Congress is the world’s greatest deliberative body. Unfortunately, 2017 saw the demise of debate and amendment. A fair and expansive deliberative process is a core element of a healthy regular order legislative process. The opportunity for minority and majority party members to discuss, debate, and most importantly, to offer amendments on pending legislation improves the quality of legislation and deepens the legitimacy of the process by incorporating the diversity of voices and viewpoints Congress is intended to represent.

Amendments offered by the minority party may not win the day, but the opportunity to offer them ensures that the voices of their constituents are heard and considered in a national debate. Even for the majority party, the ability of a broad spectrum of members, not just leadership, to offer amendments increases the participation in shaping legislation.

{mosads}Last year fell short on deliberation. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s new Healthy Congress Index counts the number of amendments considered in the Senate and the closed and open rules for debate in the House and compares those figures to previous Congresses. In the 2017, the Senate considered only 159 amendments, the lowest number for the first year of a Congress in more than a decade. Compare this to 1,037 amendments considered in 2007. In the House of Representatives, none of the rules for debate were fully open for offering amendments, and 55 percent of the time debate was governed by fully closed rules.

While debate and amendment were in short supply in Congress as a whole, the reasons for this debate deficit were different in the House and the Senate. In the Senate, the key reason for the low number of amendments is not so much that the amendment process is shut down as that the Senate has not addressed as many pieces of debatable legislation. In fact, the new Republican Senate majority in the last Congress did open up the amendment process and increase the number of amendments offered.

Under previous Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, Republicans and some Democrats complained that the majority was frequently filling the amendment tree and that neither majority or minority party senators could offer amendments. The last Congress made efforts to cut back on the filling of the amendment tree and increased the number of amendments in the Senate.

But in 2017, the dearth of debates over legislation led to fewer amendments offered. There are reasons for this lack of debate on amendable legislation. The Senate spent significant time on executive branch and judicial nominations and considered a large amount of non-amendable regulatory legislation under the Congressional Review Act. The budget vote-a-rama did not yield as many amendments as it does typically. But the bottom line still stands that the Senate has not seen many bills that could foster open debate and amendment, and thus the number of legislative amendments considered is down significantly.

In the House, the story is almost the reverse of the Senate. The House has actively considered many bills on the floor, but none have been considered under open rules, and only 45 percent have been considered under structured or semi-open rules where only specified number of amendments are allowed.

Over the years, the minority party has often called for more open rules for debate and amendment. When the majority switches, the new majority has, for a while, opened up the debate process. Most famously, under Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republicans began their new majority with many open rules and opportunities for debate only to see those open rules dwindle in subsequent Congresses.

A similar drop occurred in the second Congress under Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2009 to 2010 when there were no open amendment rules the entire Congress. Speaker Paul Ryan also called for more open rules at the start of his speakership, but in 2017, we are at a low point for open rules and even for semi-open rules.

Debate and more amendments may seem an inefficient nuisance to congressional majorities, but both parties, the legislative process and our democracy would be well served to see more noisy debate, airing of differences and especially opportunities for our elected representatives to offer amendments in the halls of Congress.

John Fortier is director of the democracy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He has written extensively on elections and government and is the editor of After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College.

Tags Congress Democrats Harry Reid Law Nancy Pelosi Paul Ryan Republicans

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

More Civil Rights News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video