An analysis of votes held this year shows the Senate is doing very little legislative work, and on average is holding a major vote on a bill every nine days.
It also shows that Senate Democratic leaders don’t get anywhere on legislation when they choose to ignore their Republican colleagues, something they do often by insisting that no amendments can be considered.
Aside from the several resolutions and less-critical bills that the Senate passes by unanimous consent at the end of the day, the Senate has held roll call votes to advance or pass legislation just 21 times in 27 weeks — less than one a week. And a full one-third of those votes have failed amid GOP complaints that they have no input into the process.
Of the 14 votes that succeeded, most were on major “must pass” bills on issues that required House-Senate coordination — like the budget and spending deals and the so-called Medicare “doc fix” — or on issues that generated easy bipartisan cooperation, like eliminating a cut to cost-of-living adjustments for U.S. soldiers.
Most of those 14 bills originated in the House, or at least were the product of significant House-Senate cooperation.
The Senate has managed to pass just a handful of bills under its own power. In March, senators managed to pass two Senate-origin bills on child care and sexual assault in the military, but those were non-controversial and the House has not acted on them yet.
It also passed a bill in June to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs that represents compromise between Senate Republicans and Democrats. But even this bill is now the subject of House-Senate negotiations that will likely see the House insist on changes.
Aside from those 14 bills, the Senate has adopted a seemingly backward strategy of seeking less input from Republicans the more controversial the issues get. The seven other votes were on bills that have so far failed, in large part because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has told Republicans he will not allow any amendment votes.
In January and February, the Senate failed to advance legislation extending federal unemployment benefits, amid GOP complaints that no amendments were being allowed. In April, the Senate couldn’t move on a bill to boost the minimum wage, an idea Republicans opposed over fears that it would reduce job availability for lower-income Americans.
In May, Democrats again refused to allow amendments to an energy bill and a tax bill, which killed those proposals. Republicans in June opposed a bill letting students refinance student loans, paid for with a tax hike.
And earlier this month, Democrats again refused to allow amendments to a non-controversial sportsmen rights bill, which killed that bill.
Many have tagged the 113th Congress as the least-productive in history. Congress has passed the fewest number of bills into law in decades, a fact that some blame on the Republican House.
Last year’s statistics showed just how slow Congress, and in particular the Senate, has become at passing legislation. President Obama signed about 60 bills into law — a record low — and most of those bills originated in the House. Until the last few years, Congress had been able to send more than a 100 and sometimes more than 200 bills to the White House.
While Democrats are blaming the House for the slowdown, Republicans have charged that the problem lies with the Senate, where Reid is letting Democrats avoid tough votes on controversial issues in order to help their re-election prospects. That Democratic posture has led to several legislative dead ends in the Senate, and many wasted weeks in which no significant action is seen on any legislation.
And while legislative production has dropped in the House, it still manages to pass dozens of bills each year, most of which go ignored in the Senate.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has argued for months that the House has passed more than 30 jobs bills that have been forgotten in the Senate. Just this month, the Senate finally got around to passing one of them, the SKILLS Act, which will revamp federal jobs training programs.
Republicans have openly criticized Reid for his opposition to even considering many other House-passed bills, in combination with his apparent need to avoid votes that could hurt Democrats in the mid-term elections.
“The reason the Majority Leader will not allow amendments is because he wants to protect his members from actually being held accountable by the voters of the United States of America,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said on the Senate floor last month. “It’s demeaning this Senate, and he demeans the loyal opposition who are doing the only thing they have as a tool, which is refuse to move forward with a bill if the Majority Leader is going to use parliamentary maneuvers to block anybody’s amendment.”