How partisan are House committees and does it matter for lawmaking?

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By Josh M. Ryan

In the U.S. House of Representatives, the majority party controls the committees, which in turn control the legislative development process. Standing committees are largely responsible for gatekeeping legislation opposed by the majority party or its leadership, and for marking-up legislation before it is referred to the entire House for consideration. Indeed, much scholarly research on the House focuses on how the majority party uses the institutional rules to shut the minority out of the process, and whether the minority party has any substantial recourse to counter majority party power. Unlike their Senate counterpart, the House minority has less ability to obstruct or delay, and instead focuses on splitting the majority party. There is little evidence the minority is systematically successful at achieving even this, as the House leadership works hard to keep divisive proposals off the floor.

This perception of House majority party power overlooks a crucial point: if a bill is to be enacted, the Senate must also pass it and the president must sign it. Legislation that is truly intended to become law, as opposed to bills passed solely for political purposes, must receive bipartisan support in the House. Is there evidence that the preferences of the minority are incorporated at the committee stage, when members work to construct legislation that they intend to become law? To answer this question, I examined roll call vote data for House committees from the 104th through 114th congresses to determine which committees reported bills that had the greatest level of support from the minority party, and whether bills with more minority party support were more likely to become law.

Data on standing committee roll call votes was collected from committee reports, where individual members’ votes are published in accordance with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. I focused my attention on votes to report the legislation to the full House, as these votes reflect committee member preferences on the final version of the bill after the markup process. More minority party support indicates that a bill reported from the committee is more bipartisan.

I found significant variation across committees in the level of partisanship on votes to report bills. On average, Small Business, Veteran’s Affairs, and Agriculture were the most bipartisan committees, while Budget, House Administration, and Oversight were the least bipartisan (I excluded the Rules Committee from the analysis). On each of the bipartisan committees, on average, more than 50-percent of members of the minority party voted to report legislation. On the most partisan committees, minority party support to report was less than 20-percent. As one would expect, almost all members of the majority party vote to report legislation, so there is much less variation across committees on this dimension.

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Constituents and interest groups increasingly pay close attention to roll call votes taken on the floor and there is growing consensus in the scholarly literature that “messaging” or signaling bills play an important role in the modern Congress. Many bills reported out of committee or even voted on by the whole House are never intended to become law; these votes instead allow lawmakers to build up their voting records, and signal issue importance and  member positions to interested observers. To get a sense of how minority party viewpoints are taken into account during the markup process, I compared voting patterns on different types of bills: those that are reported from the committee but do not pass the House, those that pass the House, and those that become law.

Using the committee reporting votes data, I find that minority party support increases substantially at each subsequent lawmaking stage. Bills which are reported out of committee but do not receive a vote on the House floor receive support from only 26-percent of minority party committee members; bills which pass the House receive support from 47-percent of minority party committee members; and bills which become law receive support from more than 63-percent of minority party committee members. When controlling for other factors such as who sponsored the bill and party control of the Senate, the percentage of the House minority party voting to report the bill increases the likelihood a bill will make it through each of the lawmaking stages. In a last test, I also find that as the number of senators from the minority party increases, votes to report bills in the House become more bipartisan. This indicates that standing committees work together more when they need larger coalitions in the Senate.  

The data clearly demonstrate that on bills which are not intended to become law, the House majority party creates partisan legislation and does not solicit minority party support. But, for those bills on which the majority party is serious about enactment, the minority party seems to have a substantial say on the content of the legislation. This occurs because the Senate minority always has an important role to play, so members of the House likely craft legislation with an eye toward the other chamber. The results also suggest that if a committee wants to see its legislation become law, soliciting minority party support during the markup stage is a good place to start.

Josh M. Ryan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Utah State University. Dr. Ryan’s research focuses on American political institutions at both the state and federal levels and he has published research in journals such as Legislative Studies Quarterly, The Journal of Politics, and Political Science Research and Methods.