The minority party in the House perennially complains it is treated unfairly when it comes to offering floor amendments. On some legislation it is not allowed to offer any amendments. That has been the case regardless of which party controls the House, and it’s gotten worse with each Congress dating back to the early 1990s.
The majority responds that governing such a large body is difficult but it tries to be both fair and efficient while advancing the majority’s legislative agenda. On bills of supreme importance to the majority, closed amendment rules are more and more common. On bills of lesser importance, structured rules are reported allowing only those amendments printed in the Rules Committee report. Completely open amendment rules are rare nowadays, confined mostly to appropriations bills. That can lead to a seemingly endless string of limitation amendments offered primarily by fiscal and policy conservatives.
So, what’s the real problem: too many amendments, too few, too much partisan gamesmanship, or too few actual policy debates over alternatives? The answer, as my wise grandfather would say (in the slightly different context of which kind of pie he wanted for dessert) is: “a little of each.”
I had occasion to re-examine this recently when I ran across an intriguing preliminary study by University of Miami political scientist (and friend), Gregory Koger (found here ). His research, covering the 111th Congress through first session of this 113th Congress, reveals that minority party members actually offer more amendments on which roll call votes are taken than do majority party members. For the years 2009 through 2013, he found 1,038 House minority party amendments (including motions to recommit with instructions—the first in a two-step process to consider a final minority amendment) for 62.5 percent of total amendment roll calls. The majority party offered 622 such amendments or 37.5 percent of the total.
In a completely fair and open system those findings make sense because reported bills are majority party products, and the minority consequently has more reason to use the floor to offer all the amendments it lost in committee. But, since the minority complains that the majority increasingly restricts minority amendment rights, something could be amiss here. I looked at this from a slightly different angle than Koger. I tallied all the amendments the House Rules Committee made in order to bills under special rules over the last three Congresses (2009-2014) without regard to whether they were subject to a roll call vote. My data shows the majority giving itself 1,204 amendments (45 percent), the minority 1,275 (48 percent), with 184 amendments (7 percent), bipartisan (see data here ).
I have not factored-in either motions to recommit (which are not direct amendments) or amendments offered under open rules (which the majority does not control).
Interestingly, if you break this down by Congress, the Democratic-controlled 111th Congress allowed minority Republicans only 336 amendments (38 percent) while giving its own majority members 551 amendments (62 percent). Majority Republicans, on the other hand, in the 112th and 113th Congresses allowed 939 minority Democratic amendments (53 percent), their own GOP colleagues just 653 amendments (37 percent), and bipartisan amendment sponsors the remaining 10 percent.
Before you conclude that Republican majorities are more fair than Democratic majorities in allocating floor amendments, whoa back! There’s an anomaly cracker in my soup. In this 113th Congress, to date, majority Republicans have set an all-time record for the most closed amendment rules –67 which is 47 percent of all rules granted. That far surpasses the previous percentage high of 36 percent closed rules in both the Republican 112th and Democratic 110th Congresses.
It’s long past time for both parties to reverse this undemocratic trend of shutting-out free and (presumably) equal representatives from full participation in the legislative process. As the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform has recommended, the best way to ensure greater member involvement in a fair yet manageable floor process is through more modified open rules that require pre-printing of amendments in the Record and impose an overall time limit on their consideration.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.