Are Republicans being treated unfairly?

Who Offers Amendments?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Republicans offer the majority of all amendments in the Senate. Democrats offer the majority of all amendments in the House.

Surprised? The data come from a nice post today by Congress scholar Greg Koger, who counted what has happened in the last three Congresses. It turns out that in each instance the chamber minority offered more amendments than the chamber majority. This happened regardless of party -- so Republicans offered more amendments in the historic 111th House, when Nancy Pelosi was Speaker, but Democrats offered more when John Boehner took the gavel in the 112th.

The big caveat I would note is that Koger only looked at roll-call votes. Particularly in the Senate, it's not unusual for amendments to be accepted by unanimous consent, sometimes with several amendments adopted together. It's also possible for amendments to be offered and accepted as part of the rule (in the House) or a unanimous consent agreement (in the Senate). So we have something here, but it's still incomplete. And total numbers of amendments say nothing, of course, about which amendments have been blocked.

So what does this tell us about accusations that Republicans have been treated unfairly by Harry Reid? Not as much as I'd like, alas.

One of the most resonant current Republican talking points (at least judged by how often it shows up in comments around here!) is that Reid has refused to allow votes on numerous House-passed bills. Philip Bump had a useful piece on that earlier this month, in which he concluded that the talking point was technically correct, but totally unexceptional: Yes, there are more than 300 bills awaiting Senate action, but that's what happens in every Congress, even during times of unified government.

That still leaves us with plenty we don't know.

First: Have any of those "blocked" bills actually been incorporated into Senate-passed bills? It's not clear whether the GovTrack resource Bump used would answer that question. Nor is it clear whether it would account for any bills which had been offered as amendments but failed to pass. Remember, in the Senate, the difference between a bill and an amendment can be very slim indeed; it's not unusual for a bill to be repackaged and offered as an amendment to some other bill. If either of these is the case, then the talking point would simply be wrong for those bills.

Next: Of the remaining bills, how many did a senator attempt to offer as an amendment, only to be blocked? If no senator has even bothered to try to put a House-passed measure on the Senate floor, then it's hard to blame Reid for blocking it.

Any House-passed bill which a senator tried to advance, only to be rebuffed, can fairly be said to have been blocked. But of those, how many had a simple majority to pass? And more to the point, how many had the 60 votes needed to pass given the Republican-imposed requirement that everything be filibustered? It's fair enough for Republicans to want on-record votes even for measures that will fall short, but bills that would have lost are in a different category than bills that would have passed.

Surely, at least a few of those House-passed bills might have cleared the Senate if Reid had scheduled a vote. The Keystone XL pipeline, for one, may well have 60 votes and clearly has at least a simple majority. On the other hand, the same is true for bills going the other direction. Vote counters believe that the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration bill would probably pass in the House, among others. We could note, too, that the Senate would have presumably passed far more bills if it wasn't for unprecedented (before 2009, that is) Republican filibusters.

It is true, however, that the Senate has traditionally been open to amendments and that Reid and the majority Democrats have acted frequently to cut off amendments. Democrats would say that unusual restrictions are "needed" because Republicans have abused the process. I'm afraid that the numbers we've seen so far just don't really resolve the question.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

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