Senate Dynamics: The Power of Committees, Pt 1

It has been said that failure has many fathers, but in Senate committees, failure has many motions. Bills are passed by indefinitely, continued to the following session, stricken, and occasionally left in committee. In the House, bills are also frequently left in committee or tabled. In this post, we’ll take a look at some numbers that help to illustrate just how significant committees are in the legislative process.

To make sense of the data, I have converted all of these options into a simple “Yea” or “Nay” on passage, such that, for instance, voting to pass a bill by indefinitely is considered a “Nay,” even though it would be recorded as a “Yea” on the motion to PBI.

All told, 1,503 bill referrals were made to Senate committees, but even this can’t be simple, as 61 bills were subsequently rereferred to another committee, sometimes on a “report and rerefer” motion and sometimes on simple referral. Sixty-six bills, moreover, were incorporated into similar legislation. But again, to simplify matters, we can exclude votes on incorporation and only count rereferrals if they include a motion to report, leaving us with 1,442 committee decisions on the merits of legislation in 2014 (1,376 not counting incorporated bills).

Overall, Senate committees reported legislation 73.1% of the time, but, as would be expected, how bills fared varied considerably from committee to committee. Bills coming before the Committee on Local Government reported out a full 87.8% of the time, while at the other end of the spectrum, the Committee on Privileges & Elections only granted its assent 59.4% of the time, even less often than the Rules Committee, which approved 60.2% of bills and resolutions before it.

Table 1

Some committees are unusually likely to incorporate or rerefer legislation, so there’s value in looking at the percentages of bills reporting another way, this time filtering out incorporations and rereferrals and drilling down to the 1,376 instances in which committees took up the merits of a bill (or left it in committee).

Table 2

A similar pattern emerges in the average vote on each bill individually. It won’t do to simply look at the average numbers of yeas and nays standing alone, since committee membership and average attendance vary. It works better to consider the percentage of votes cast in the affirmative on each bill. Once again, Local Government emerges as the most receptive committee, with 90.2% of all votes cast being in favor of reporting. And again, Privileges & Elections is the stingiest, at 68.6%. No meaningful roll call data is available for Rules, since the majority of that committee’s actions are conducted by voice vote.

Table 3

In the next post, we’ll continue this examination of committee statistics with a look at member participation, levels of committee activity, and the different committees’ quirks and patterns in how they dispatch bills, along with a summary table to facilitate your own analysis.

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Posts in the Senate Dynamics Series:

  1. Floor Consensus
  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 (this post)
  6. The Power of Committees, Part 2
  7. Anatomy of Legislative Success (forthcoming)
Posted in Senate of Virginia, Virginia General Assembly, Vote Analysis.