What’s the Difference? Senate Committee Quorum Rules and Procedures

Despite the longstanding warnings from the Capitol attending physician and D.C. health official extending the stay-at-home order from May 15 to June 8, the Senate chose to return to Washington DC on May 4 for regular business. This includes voting on voting on nominations on the Senate floor as well as holding various committee proceedings.

But a majority of the committee proceedings have been different since the Senate has returned, with senators often choosing to appear via video conference to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Earlier this year, the Senate HELP Committee hosted a proceeding that included the chairman, the ranking member, and all four witnesses all participating via video conference. 

Given the circumstances, these modified proceedings had us thinking: What are the quorum requirements of each committee and what could potentially need to be changed if virtual proceedings are fully implemented?

Senate Rule XXVI establishes specific requirements for certain Senate committee procedures. In addition, each Senate committee is required to adopt rules to govern its own proceedings. These rules may “not be inconsistent with the Rules of the Senate,” but committees are allowed some flexibility to establish rules tailored to how certain activities can be conducted, which can result in significant variation in the way each committee operates. 

Given the changing circumstances of committee proceedings, we read each Senate committee’s rules and procedures to find trends, gaps, and unusual practices. Our complete spreadsheet on the House and Senate committee rules breakdown can be found here and is embedded below. 

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House Advances Franking Modernization Bill

The House passed a bill last week designed to bring the Franking Commission into the 21st century. The Communications Outreach Media and Mail Standards Act, or COMMS Act (H.R.7512), extends the commission’s authority to regulate mass communications (i.e., to 500 people or more) by Members and Members-elect. The commission’s authority has historically been limited to mailings but the new language refers to a wider range of communications. 

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116th Congress Update: How Senate Committees Get Their Money

(This is an update of a 2019 article on how Senate Committees are funded. It has been updated for the 116th Congress.) 

UPDATED TRENDS IN SENATE COMMITTEE FUNDING

How do Senate committees get their funding and how has funding changed over the last 25 years? We crunched the numbers for you and here are the highlights:

  • Senate Committee spending saw a slight uptick in funding this session, but is still well short of its peak 2010 funding. 
  • Appropriations continues to reign; the committee gets the largest portion of the funding and doesn’t have to ask for money.
  • Every Senate Committee experienced an increase in spending between the 106th and 116th Congresses in inflation adjusted dollars, with each committee seeing at least a 50% increase in funding since 1999.
  • While Senate Committees are still struggling with scarce funding, they’re in much better shape than House committees, which have seen draconian cuts since 2010.
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116th Congress Update: How House Committees Get Their Money

(This is an update of a 2019 article on how House Committees are funded. It has been updated for the 116th Congress.)

Committee funding in the House of Representatives is accomplished through a somewhat quirky process. Appropriators in the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee set a top dollar amount for the committees — they appropriate the funds — but it is the Committee on House Administration that provides (i.e. allots) the funds to each committee on a biennial basis.

At the beginning of each new Congress, each committee chair and ranking member jointly testifies before the House Administration Committee and requests funds for their committee. For the 116th Congress, the hearing took place on March 12, 2019. Here is the committee notice; the written statements requesting funds; and video.

On March 21, the House Administration Committee introduced a funding resolution in the House, and on March 25, the committee held a markup on House Resolution 245 that allotted funds to the committees. You can watch the very brief proceedings here. House Administration reported out the committee report on March 26th, and the House passed the resolution on March 27.

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Who Steers the Ship? An Examination of House Steering and Policy Committee Membership

House Democrats and Republicans use internal party committees to control major aspects of the legislative process, including choosing who gets to serve on legislative committees. As we all know, personnel is policy.

Under the House rules, each party decides committee assignments for its members. As a result, the steering and policy committees are the scene of intraparty jockeying for power. With a large number of members competing for a relatively small number of key committee assignments and leadership roles, the parties’ respective steering committees act as a filter for who will rise and a sorting mechanism among the party’s internal factions. It is also a mechanism by which leadership taxes members to provide financial contributions in support of the party.

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Appropriations Cheat Sheet: Reforms To Include In 2021 Spending Bills

The 2021 appropriations process is ramping up with markups scheduled over next month and just a few months left before the end of the fiscal year. Appropriations bills can be a vehicle for institutional reform; we would like to elevate a few modernization ideas from a number of civil society organizations that lawmakers may wish to consider. (All of our recommendations are available online.)

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Initial Thoughts on the House’s Remote Deliberation Resolution

This morning, House Rules Committee Democrats introduced a resolution (H. Res 965) that would provide for some remote deliberations for House committees and on the floor. Accompanying that resolution was a Dear Colleague from the Rules Committee that explains how the resolution would work, a one-page explainer, and a statement from the Democratic members of the Virtual Task Force on the resolution.

In short, the resolution:

  • Provides for proxy voting on the House floor, which would be turned on, extended, and turned off at the direction of the House Speaker. Members would send a letter to the House Clerk to designate their proxy, and no such designee can cast more than 10 proxy votes. The Clerk would publish the proxy designation on its website. The proxy is revocable, and must provide specific direction as to how to vote. Members voting by proxy would count towards a quorum.
  • Provides a mechanism for the Chair of the House Administration Committee (in consultation with the RM) to advise on whether secure technology is available to allow for remote voting on the floor. The Chair of the House Rules Committee would then promulgate regulations to put it into effect (to be published in the Congressional Record), and the Speaker would notify the House that remote voting is now possible. Presumably, the Speaker would be able to choose whether to provide this notice.
  • Provides for remote deliberations for hearings and markups for committees. Many of the details of how this would work have been pushed to the Rules Committee, whose chair (in consultation with the RM) would issue regulations on remote deliberations that would be published in the Congressional Record. To conduct business meetings (which presumably means markups), a majority of Members of the Committee would have to certify they will follow the regulations and that the committee is ready for remote deliberations.
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Remote Deliberations: Terms of the Trade

Congress is beginning to innovate around how it deliberates in committees and on the floor. These changes are driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made in-person meetings unsafe and unwise, although many of the proposed modifications require rules changes. We have seen various terms used to refer to how Congress could deliberate — e.g. remote hearings, virtual hearings, remote voting, etc. — but they are used inconsistently.

Here are our proposals to add some meat to these terms. 

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Continuity of Congress: A Timeline of Remote Deliberations and Voting

Congress has been mostly absent as the country fights against the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic began, many lawmakers, outside organizations, and former Members of Congress encouraged the legislative branch to instantiate remote deliberations and voting measures in the event of an emergency. 

The following is a timeline of many of the recent key events concerning Continuity of Congress during a pandemic. More information can be found at continuityofcongress.org

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Can Online Presence Count Towards A Quorum?

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a fantastic report last week analyzing the constitutional rules governing quorum requirements to coincide with last week’s virtual hearing on Continuity of Senate Operations and Remote Voting in Times of Crisis.

If you’re not a policy wonk who finds quorum requirements inherently interesting, consider this: Determinations around remote quorum partially dictate whether Congress can hold official proceedings and votes remotely. In other words, this analysis impacts how Congress may or may not work remotely.

So where did the committee fall on the issue? The short answer is, it’s complicated.

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