Senate Dynamics: Floor Consensus

Although some of the legislative session’s most memorable moments emerge from impassioned debate on the Senate floor, the real work is done in committee—so much so that, optics aside, a bill’s defeat on the chamber floor is a rare event.

In all, there were 2,376 Senate floor votes during the 2014 regular session, but many of these were procedural: roll calls, moving bills through their readings, suspending the rules, and the like. By my count, just under 1,300 votes were substantive, though definitions are necessarily subjective. More objectivity is possible if we limit our analysis to votes on the final passage of legislation (excluding memorial and commending resolutions approved by voice vote); there were 955 such votes in 2014.

Of the 955 bills (House and Senate) that came to the Senate floor, a full 944 (98.8%) passed, most by overwhelming margins. Of bills that passed the chamber, the average floor vote was 38-1, and the median bill passed 40-0. (Many such bills, of course, passed “in the block.”) More than ten “nays” (or votes to strike or recommit) went up on a mere 62 bills (6.5%) and only 96 bills (10.1%) managed at least five votes in opposition. By contrast, 765 bills (80.1%) passed the Senate unanimously.

The eleven bills that failed received, on average, 14 votes in support of passage, but this number is misleading since two bills (SB 9 and SB 35) were stricken from the calendar with only one dissenting vote apiece. Excluding those, a somewhat different picture emerges, with the remaining nine bills picking up a mean of just under 17 votes in favor, and a median of 18.

There were, moreover, only four tie votes on the Senate floor in 2014: SB 465 (20-20, Lt. Governor votes nay), SBs 590 and 617 (20-20, Lt. Governor votes yea), and SB 139 (19-19, Lt. Governor votes yea).

The fate of just five percent of all bills hinged on a split vote, with the majority of the members of one party voting yea and the majority of the other party voting nay. Only 40 bills received the support of fewer than half of the chamber’s Republicans, with just five failing to receive a single Republican vote (SBs 629, 326, 618, 590, and SJ 152). Every bill, meanwhile, received at least one Democratic vote, though three bills (SBs 310, 319, and 465) enjoyed the backing of a solitary Democrat.

A mere nine bills that made it to the floor received the votes of fewer than half of the Democratic members, and seven of them (all but HBs 962 and 1121) had cleared committee before Democrats reorganized the chamber—a clear testament to the power of controlling the committees.

If few bills failed to receive received majority support from each party, still fewer such bills actually passed, with the numbers again reflecting the importance of even the narrowest of partisan majorities. Thirty-five bills passed the Senate without the support of a majority of Republicans; only seven passed without the majority of Democrats on board. One bill stands out as failing with particularly notable coalition: SB 422, the only bill recommitted in 2014, was sent back to committee with the backing of 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans.

If floor votes paint a picture of unanimity, that’s only because most legislative defeats are suffered in committee. Of the 864 Senate Bills referred to committee, for instance, only 426—fewer than half—reported. Of those, 415 passed the Senate, after which a further 64 died in House committees. Since all but one Senate bill that ran that gamut achieved success on the House floor, the overall success rate for Senate bills and joint resolutions (excluding memorial and commending resolutions approved on voice votes) was 40.5%, and 97.7% of Senate defeated Senate bills met their fate in committee, not on the floor.

All told, the Senate killed 508 House and Senate bills—only 2.2% of them on the floor.

To further illustrate just how little disagreement there is on the Senate floor, and how that unity masks the real action of the Senate, in future posts I’ll show how often individual Senators—even those with sharply contrasting views—agree with each other on floor votes (and serve up a script that will allow you to compare Senators’ voting records and even drill down to individual votes), then delve into statistics on committee votes.

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Fate of Senate Legislation

Fate of Senate Legislation (2014)

Posts in the Senate Dynamics Series:

  1. Floor Consensus (this post)
  2. Member Vote Patterns, Part 1
  3. Member Vote Patterns, Part 2
  4. Run Your Own Senator Comparisons
  5. The Power of Committees, Part 1 (forthcoming)
  6. The Power of Committees, Part 2 (forthcoming)
  7. Anatomy of Legislative Success (forthcoming)
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