Thousands of Bills, Back Rooms, Spending Debates: How Congress Really Works

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Many Americans have seen a “Schoolhouse Rock” video explaining how Congress operates, or they may have taken political science classes in school. But neither paints the full picture of how Congress “actually works,” Clint Brown says.

Take the introduction of bills in Congress as an example, says Brown, vice president of government relations at The Heritage Foundation. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)

Members of Congress introduce thousands of bills every year,” Brown says, but many of them “are laying a marker for what they believe.”

“We call them messaging bills,” he adds, “because [lawmakers] want to talk about the issue, but they don’t intend it to pass.”

As in any office building, “there are conversations happening all the time,” Brown says, and lawmakers have their own “congressional version of the water cooler” and “talk over what they’re working on just like anybody else.”

“Sometimes there are the smoke-filled back rooms where they hatch plans, and it seems very scandalous and salacious,” he says. “But most of the time, it’s just normal conversation. And that’s how things get done, is you go talk to people about it.”

Brown joins this episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” for the second in a three-part series explaining how Congress really works.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

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Virginia Allen: Clint Brown is vice president of government relations at The Heritage Foundation. Clint has served in the legal and political arena for more than a decade.

Before joining Heritage he was executive director of the Senate Steering Committee, chaired by Utah Sen. Mike Lee.

Clint, I think for all of our listeners, probably everyone’s taken a civics class. We all learn in school about politics and the three branches of government. But when you actually get into it, explain what you think are some of the most common misconceptions that people have, specifically about Congress.

Clint Brown: So, everybody’s seen “Schoolhouse Rock.” You see the bill sitting on the Hill. You know it’s a summary. And then you take your civics class, maybe take some political science classes in college, if you go to college. You see what’s happening on Fox News. There’s an idea of how things work.

When people start to interact with Congress is where I see the most misconceptions. So people who are active in local politics or state politics and just now getting into that, maybe they reach out to Congress and they think, “Oh yeah, an intern’s going to answer the phone and there’s maybe one or two people that work for the member of Congress.” Actually, some estimates have it at 18,500 staffers that work on Capitol Hill.

Allen: Wow.

Brown: Others have it closer to 10,000. I think that’s a disparity between committee staff and personal office staff.

So each member of Congress has a staff of their own, a chief of staff, a legislative director, legislative assistants, communications directors, press secretaries. There’s a whole army of people that keep them going.

And you’re not just talking to an intern who’s then going to go talk to the member of Congress. So you have to understand what’s going on there and who works there in order to interact well with Congress.

And those people are very important. They’re usually young. They’re here because they’re optimistic and they want to help the country, in most cases.

So understanding just how big the institution is, I think, is a major misconception … . It’s not nearly as big as the federal government, which it oversees. It should probably balance out a little bit, but it’s a large institution and members of Congress are very busy. Their schedules are very tight when they’re in town, which is about three and a half days a week. They have a scheduler who keeps them scheduled minute by minute.

Allen: It’s constant.

Brown: Constant.

Allen: And one of those roles that keeps them so busy that the Founders specifically gave them was this critical role in creating laws and in debating what our laws should be and talking about bills and legislation.

Talk us through just a little bit from beginning to end, a member of Congress seeking to pass a bill. What does that process look like?

Brown: Yeah, so, there’s the “Schoolhouse Rock” version, there’s advanced “Schoolhouse Rock” version—which we’ll call political science—and there’s how it actually works.

Allen: We want to know how it actually works.

Brown: But you have to understand the 101 to really understand how it actually works.

There are committees. Members are on committees. Those committees focus on specific federal agencies, specific areas of interest to Congress. An example’s, like, environmental. There’s committees on the environment and public works in the House and in the Senate, energy, the judiciary.

There’s committees on everything and the senators who are on those committees draft legislation that is considered in that committee, passes out of that committee, potentially, if it’s going to move forward.

Sometimes there’s amendments in the committee, goes to the floor of the House or the Senate and it can be amended there, theoretically, not really. We’ll get into that.

And then as it moves through that process, everybody has their opportunity to say what they think about the bill, make it better, improve it. Then it passes one chamber, goes to the other chamber.

It doesn’t start the process over again. Although it may have been considered in committee in that chamber as well, it doesn’t have to be. It’ll typically go straight to what we call the floor, which is where the whole chamber considers it. Passed there, gets signed by the president. Right? That’s the 101. What actually happens is significantly more complicated.

So going to the “Schoolhouse Rock” advanced, the political science, what you often hear is there’s just so much partisanship in Congress, nothing can get done because there’s partisanship in Congress. And spending 10 years there, that’s just not true.

Allen: How so?

Brown: At some level, it is true. There is a lot of partisanship and rhetoric, but 94%—don’t quote me on that exact number. It’s been a while since I’ve run it and the numbers change over time. But last time I checked, which was a couple years ago, about 94% of legislation that passes the Senate passes unanimously, not just bipartisan, unanimously. One hundred senators support it. You don’t get more bipartisan than that.

Allen: You also don’t really hear about that a lot.

Brown: You don’t hear about that. No. People don’t know that.

Now, sometimes these are renaming post offices, which, yes, in America takes an act of Congress, but not most of the time. That’s sometimes. Sometimes it’s actual legislation, it’s a real bill. There have been a number of major bills that have passed by unanimous consent.

So there’s 6% of bills that pass that are not considered unanimous consent. They all pass bipartisan, every single one of them in the Senate, because it takes 60 votes to pass something in the Senate.

And we haven’t had one party have a 60-vote majority for a number of years, maybe decades. I don’t remember the exact year. So they all are bipartisan.

So then what doesn’t get done is what the political scientists focus on, all these bills that don’t actually pass. They can’t pass because they’re not bipartisan. Do they need to get done? Did they ever intend to get done?

Members of Congress introduce thousands of bills every year and some of these bills they intend to pass. Some of these bills are laying a marker for what they believe. We call them messaging bills because they want to talk about the issue, but they don’t intend it to pass.

And it’s not because it’s not bipartisan, it’s because they haven’t necessarily built the support for it. And as I mentioned earlier, they have very busy schedules. They have to prioritize where they focus their efforts.

Now, at The Heritage Foundation, we would encourage them maybe sometimes to shift their priorities, but they have to prioritize what they talk to their colleagues about, what they get support behind, what they come talk to groups like us about, what they talk to the news about, in order to build that support, which takes years to pass a bill.

So just saying that there’s bipartisan logjams and things don’t pass is really not looking at the issue. They often point to funding bills. “Oh, there’s always a fight over funding or the debt ceiling.” Well, there’s a reason for that and it’s not partisanship.

This is how it actually works. This is where we’re getting into the real details of what actually happens. How you pass a bill in Congress is supposed to be that everybody has an opportunity to amend, have their input on legislation.

Until the late 2000s, this was pretty normal. This happened a lot and there were some logjams in there. I’ll get into why.

But now, in the Senate at least, there are very few opportunities to amend legislation and you think, “Oh, I voted for my senator. They’re going to come to Washington and have input on this bill and they’re going to change it and make it where it represents my interests.” That’s assuming they can amend the bill.

So what happens in the Senate, there’s a tradition. The Senate is governed by three things: tradition, rules, and precedent. The precedent is where the whole body looks at the rules and makes an interpretation, much like a court.

I can get into that a little bit more, but for our purposes right now, the other thing that governs is tradition. The Senate is a very traditional place—that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone—and one tradition is the right of first recognition for the majority leader.

So whoever’s in charge right now, that’s Chuck Schumer, as elected by the majority, Democrats, gets to go down to the Senate floor and the chair under tradition recognizes him to speak first. That’s really powerful because that means that he can introduce a bill, he can call it up, and then he can take all of the available opportunities for amendments.

So there’s a thing called the amendment tree. I won’t get into it, that’ll bore people to death, but just know there are certain opportunities for amendments. You can’t make unlimited amendments under the current way the Senate operates because it would be too unwieldy.

There’s an orderly process. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. The majority leader takes advantage of that orderly process. And this isn’t even a partisan statement. Sen. [Mitch] McConnell, when he was majority leader, did the same thing. In fact, he accelerated it.

They take every opportunity for an amendment. So no senator has the opportunity to file amendment, call it up, get it voted on, and have their input on the legislation. They do have some opportunity in committee sometimes.

How does this create logjam? Well, if you don’t have the opportunity to have your input on bills, your only option as a senator or a member of the House is to take leverage. When you have leverage is when they need to pass something. And they need to pass it usually quickly because things get held up along the way. There’s debate.

Oftentimes it’s the craziest thing. The majority leader will plan to introduce a spending bill at the last minute before everybody wants to go home for Christmas. It’s wild.

Allen: It’s intentional.

Brown: It’s a limited time window, though. So if you’re willing to be the Grinch, you can say, “We’re not moving this quickly. I have the power to hold this up and I’m going to hold it up until you give me an opportunity to amend it.”

And if that’s your only opportunity to get an amendment, you’re going to go big. You’re going to ask for something that you really want and it makes it look like there’s all this logjam and we can’t agree.

And there’s all this fear about a government shutdown and sometimes government shutdowns happen. It’s not the end of the world. But that is what’s actually going on there.

So if they actually followed the process and they were collegial, etc., etc., had amendments throughout the year, maybe they wouldn’t have this logjam.

It’s not partisanship. Although some would say, “Well, they’re doing that to keep partisan amendments off.” That may be the excuse, but the reality is they’re doing it because they don’t want to take tough votes. They don’t want to take tough votes on these amendments because groups will go run ads based on these votes against members.

And you can call that partisanship. I think at Heritage, we would probably call that informing the voters of the position that their member has.

There’s been a lot of debate recently about following the Republican presidential debate about exactly where do Democrats stand on abortion? Are they for abortion up until birth? Well, you can look at their voting record and see that they are. All the Democrats in the Senate voted for that.

So that’s why we have to get members on record. That’s why they don’t want to be on record. That’s why they use this mechanism. That’s why we have logjams.

Allen: OK, this is fascinating. All right. So when a bill is being considered, whether it’s an agricultural bill or whether it’s spending, how many conversations are happening behind closed doors between members in offices when it is those situations where there’s a narrow window and it has potential to be bipartisan, but it doesn’t necessarily look like it on the onset?

Brown: There are conversations happening all the time. These people work together. These are their co-workers. They meet at the congressional version of the water cooler and they talk over what they’re working on just like anybody else.

Sometimes there are the smoke-filled back rooms where they hatch plans and it seems very scandalous and salacious. That’s a real thing. But most of the time it’s just normal conversation.

And that’s how things get done, is you go talk to people about it. You say, “Hey, this is actually a great bill because of this. What are your concerns?” You hear their concerns and you address those.

Now, back to the amendments, that should be happening on the House and Senate floor. They should be saying, “Here’s my concern. Here’s an amendment to fix it in an orderly process,” and have that debate in the public. So if you don’t like smoke-filled rooms where people cut deals, you want amendments and you want an open amendment process.

Allen: Now, specifically, let’s touch a little bit deeper on the budget and the spending aspect because, obviously, Congress holds the power of the purse. We’re coming up as Congress comes back into session in September. There’s going to be a lot of fights about these appropriations bills and approval of the budget. Give us a little bit of a rundown of what this process looks like and when Congress can agree on a budget. When they’re not able to reach that consensus, what happens?

Brown: So, when we come back, when Congress comes back in session next week, they’ll start considering—well, they’ve already been considering, but they’ll really buckle down and start considering spending bills because government funding expires Sept. 30. That’s the congressional federal fiscal year.

Typically, what happens is they do what’s called a continuing resolution. We’re just going to continue using the funding from last year at the same levels for a few weeks or even a whole year. It can go for any amount of time.

What usually happens this time of year is they’ll do a couple weeks here and a couple weeks there until it gets to Christmas. And if you object, you’re the Grinch and you’re keeping all of your colleagues from going home for Christmas.

Now, I mean, you work with people for years. They’re away from their families. They’re away from their hometowns. Christmas is sacred to everybody. The holidays are sacred to everybody. But it’s especially sacred when you’re away from your family a lot.

So if you’re the Grinch that holds it up, you’re going to get a lot of hate from your colleagues and the one thing you need to get things done is not hate from your colleagues in Congress. So it really puts them in a weird position.

There are members in the House Freedom Caucus and some senators who have called for, “Let’s not do that. Let’s not do that this time. A number of members would support that. Let’s actually, if we can’t get the funding done by Sept. 30, let’s extend this beyond Christmas and work on it and figure it out.”

And here we are back to that leverage point.

The House Freedom Caucus recently issued a statement that they had some asks for what they would need in order to pass a continuing resolution. They don’t want it to be a short-term continuing resolution that just goes until right up until Christmas. They want it to fix the border and … they want to fix the woke and weaponized FBI.

These are great things that we at Heritage are encouraging them to do, but they’re having to use that leverage to get what they need.

So that’s what we expect to see play out. There will be some debate over what they can do on a CR to fix those issues.

Allen: Define what a CR is.

Brown: CR, continuing resolution. Sorry about that—congressional speak, it comes out sometimes. So that’s what we expect to see in the coming weeks.

This is how the process will play out. There will be meetings between members, these backroom discussions. There will be debate on the floor of the House and the Senate about this. You’ll see both.

Allen: All right. Clint, any final thoughts? Things that, as we’re watching, even just in the next several weeks as we’re watching a little bit of excitement play out in Congress, they’re coming back, they’re debating path forward, we’re looking at the end of the year, anything that you think the American people should be aware of as we’re watching some of this play out?

Brown: Definitely. There’s a lot they should be aware of, but in the limited time we have, I would highlight that the media is going to cling onto the dysfunction and say, “Oh look, the Republican House can’t get it together.”

They’ve said that before and the Republican House does get it together. They’ve said that a number of times this year. They said that on the Speaker [Kevin] McCarthy vote. “Oh, look how terrible this is. They can’t get it together.”

Actually, it was kind of awesome. All sides came to an agreement. Kevin McCarthy, I’ll give him props, he came to an agreement. The 20, we’ve praised them extensively here at Heritage and The Daily Signal has praised them extensively for the courage it took to make demands about how the process should work.

This is how Congress works. It’s an adversarial process in many ways. There’s conflict, there’s debate. Understand the world is not ending even if the government shuts down.

As far as I’m concerned, the conservatives in the House have pretty reasonable demands. These are not crazy. They’ve already passed HR 2. It got 45 votes in the Senate as well. HR 2 is the border security bill. It’s not crazy to demand that they move that again with a continuing resolution. This is easy. You’ve already done it.

So when the media says the sky’s falling, just be aware. This is how the process is supposed to work. They’re going to work it out and it’ll be fine.

Allen: It’ll be fine. I love that. It’s a good note to leave it on. Clint Brown, vice president of government relations at The Heritage Foundation. Thank you for your time. We really appreciate it.

Brown: Thanks so much for having me. Love to talk about Congress.

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The post Thousands of Bills, Back Rooms, Spending Debates: How Congress Really Works appeared first on The Daily Signal.

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