The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are 300 House bills really bottled up in the Senate?

Placeholder while article actions load

“The House passed over 300 pieces of legislation, many of them on a bipartisan basis, and nothing was done with them in the Senate.”

— Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), news conference, Nov. 5, 2014

We are not singling out the incoming Senate majority leader, as Republicans from both sides of Capitol Hill have repeatedly cited this figure, even producing a You Tube video with the hashtag #StuckInTheSenate. A colleague wondered how accurate it was, so we decided to check it out.

We did not have to look far, as it turns out another colleague, Philip Bump of The Fix blog, already examined this question in August. (The Fact Checker was on vacation then, and missed his report.) Bump is a master chart maker, so we are going to borrow from his good work.

The important question is: Does this number mean that something fishy is going on in the current Senate?

The Facts

Bump used data from GovTrack to assess this claim, going back for the past 20 Congresses to count up how bills had passed the House but were still waiting for Senate consideration when Congress adjourned.

Voila! It turned out that in 11 of the past 19 Congresses — more than half — more than 300 bills were waiting for Senate action by the time the Congress completed its work. In fact, there were nearly 200 or more House bills pending in every single Congress of the past 40 years. (For this Congress, the number currently is just shy of 350.)

In the chart below, Bump color-coded the bars with the color of the party that controlled the House during that Congress — red for Republicans and blue for Democrats.

You can see that the worst jam-up — when more than 700 bills passed in the House were ignored by the Senate — came in the 110th Congress, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate. So if anyone should have been upset at the Senate, it should have been Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then the house speaker. She had more than twice as many bills “stuck in the Senate” than Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the current speaker.

Bump also examined how many bills passed by the Senate were ignored by the House. (Remember that big immigration bill that passed with bipartisan support in 2013?) The numbers are not as large— about 70 — but it is still substantial.

You can see that the Senate used to have more bills that languished but it is not because the House has acted on more bills. The Senate has passed fewer bills since Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) became majority leader and McConnell became minority leader in 2007, though the reasons for the slowdown remain the subject of debate. McConnell has pledged to reintroduce what he calls “regular order” to the Senate, so it will be interesting to see if the number of bills passed by the Senate increases. But the evidence suggests that even so, that only means more Senate bills will languish in the House.

In any event, Bump found that this Congress has introduced fewer bills than most past Congresses and put far fewer in front of the president to sign.

The Pinocchio Test

This is one of these “facts” that is sorely lacking context. While some 300 bills have passed the House and failed to pass the Senate, there is nothing unusual or unique about this. As Bump put it, “when it comes to House legislation that the Senate is ignoring, it’s the same as it ever was.”

Republicans earn Two Pinocchios for this claim.

Two Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Follow The Fact Checker on Twitter and friend us on Facebook