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The Bills Left Behind

September 11, 2010 - by Hilary Worden

As we mentioned last week, The Hill recently reported that there are 372 bills that have been passed by the House but not yet been acted upon by the Senate. Which chamber is at fault for this? Is the House wildly passing superfluous bills, or is the Senate failing to keep up with matters that need to be addressed? For the most part, the latter. According to our analysis of data from OpenCongress and GovTrack, the House has passed many broadly popular bills that are stalling in the Senate for reasons other than their content.

In theory, the Senate is supposed to slow the legislative process down sometimes. It was intended to be the more deliberative chamber, preventing the potentially impulsive House from doing anything too rash. Therefore, one might reasonably expect some bills to get past the House but not the Senate, and consider them indicators that the Senate is doing its job.

However, the bills the Senate holds up probably ought to be the controversial ones — the ones deserving of serious and lengthy debate. The word “controversial” describes few of these 372 bills. 182 of them were passed in the House by voice vote, so there aren’t recorded vote totals for them. Of the other 190:

  • 44 were passed with 100% (of those voting) voting in favor,
  • another 31 were passed with at least 99% voting in favor,
  • another 46 were passed with at least 90% voting in favor, and
  • another 53 were passed with at least 60% voting in favor,

leaving only 16 passed with less than 60%. Over 85% of the roll call votes had at least 261 (60% of the House) in favor, meaning they could have passed even if the House shared the Senate rules that allowed for filibusters (necessitating a three-fifths vote for cloture).

On average, the bills have been waiting about 10 months. 242 of the 372 were passed in the House more than six months ago (of which 131 were passed more than a year ago). A couple (H.R.35 and H.R.36) were passed January 7, 2009. Are Senators, as we would hope, spending this time to exchange opinions, consider and reject unneeded bills, and improve other bills before passage? For the most part, no.

Quite a few of the bills are of the variety that we don’t imagine anyone would oppose – bills like H.R.3506, which would exempt from annual privacy notice requirements institutions that haven’t changed their privacy policies. It was received in the Senate in April, and has been in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs ever since. These sorts of bills won’t dramatically affect most of our lives, but we can likely all agree that they should be passed.

Some of the other bills are more substantial, but face a similar level of opposition. For example, H.R.5481, to give subpoena power to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, was passed June 23 with 99.8% voting in favor (voted against by, literally, none other than Rep. Ron Paul [R-TX]). Were it held up so that the Senate could take time to debate whether the commission truly needs subpoena power, or the merits of involving the federal government in the situation, or really anything meaningful, the delay could be acceptable. The Senate isn’t debating H.R.5481 though, it just hasn’t gotten to it.

Still other bills face more substantial opposition, but nonetheless sailed through their House vote, and would probably have the votes to pass in the Senate if given the chance. H.R.80, the Captive Primate Safety Act, is among these: it passed in February 2009 with 77.3% voting in favor, left its Senate committee five months later, and has yet to be considered by the rest of the Senate. (This is actually its second time getting stuck in the Senate: during the 110th Congress, a similar bill passed the House as H.R.2964 with 76.6% voting in favor, but never saw a Senate vote.)

Lastly, there are bills whose vote in the House was actually relatively close. These include some bills that are surely familiar (such as the climate change bill, the Disclose Act, and the small business bill), and some that might not be (such as H.R.2499, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act). A few of these bills are enjoying a great deal of attention. Others, like the Lumbee Recognition Act and Restore Our American Mustangs Act, are not, and aren’t likely to.

It’s difficult to judge interest in bills, especially those that fly a little under the mass media radar. If traffic to OpenCongress bill pages can be used as any indicator though, these are not bills that no one cares about. Combined, they’ve received over 1.1 million views on OpenCongress. Though the bottom 50 come in under 500 hits, the top 27 have each received at least 5,000 pageviews.

Bills have to be passed by both houses in the same congress to become law, so bills not passed by the Senate before the session ends will have to be re-introduced in the 112th Congress. The time the current House spent passing them this time will have been wasted, and they will have to wait months to go through the process again (assuming they are re-introduced at all). The Senate’s leisurely pace arguably has the benefit of slowing government expansion, but, even if one favors small government, is this really how the government should be shrunk — by a Senate too overwhelmed to properly consider what should and shouldn’t be passed? And, if it lacks the time to consider some matters at all, how likely is it that the Senate is giving enough attention to all the bills it does pass?

You can find a table of the bills, the vote they passed with, date of House vote, and views on OpenCongress on our Wiki. We’re also working on producing a table for the (much smaller number) of Senate-passed bills stuck in the House.

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