Legislative Democrats have had more of their bills considered in recent years

Democrats were more successful at getting their bills considered in 2012 than in previous years.

Republicans have held a veto-proof supermajority in the Utah Legislature for years. The 2012 elections gave them even more control, bringing us the second most Republican Legislature in 80 years.

Some may be wondering whether Legislative Republicans even pay passing attention to ideas pushed by their Democratic colleagues. The Utah Legislature considers hundreds of bills each year. It employs several mechanisms–notably each chamber’s Rules Committee–to weed out bills without even giving them a single floor vote. These mechanisms assist in managing the flood of bills, but there is an obvious potential to use these powers to keep bills that the majority party doesn’t like from ever coming to the floor.

So here’s the question I want to answer: Are Democrats able to get their bills to a floor vote, or do procedural hurdles prevent minority party bills from coming to a vote? (I’m asking whether the bills come to at least one floor vote, not whether the bills pass. Passage data are available here if you’re curious.)

It turns out the answer varies widely from year to year. In the 2012 legislative session, Democrats managed to bring 72% of their bills to a vote. That’s only 5 points shy of the 77% of Republican bills that came to a vote. That 5-point gap is a stark change from how things worked just a few years earlier. In 2009, Democrats brought only 50% of their bills to a vote, compared to 86% for Republicans–a 36-point gap. The figure below sums it up.

The percentage of Republican- and Democratic- sponsored bills that had at least one floor vote

The percentage of Republican- and Democratic- sponsored bills that had at least one floor vote

I find the green line most interesting. It shows the difference between the two parties’ batting averages. You can see that the difference peaked at 36 percentage points in 2009, and fell steadily until it was at almost 0 in 2012.

What has changed since 2009?

There are two main factors that could cause minority-party Democrats to have more success with bringing their bills to a vote.

  • First, the ideological flavor of the bills. If the minority brings forward moderate bills, they will find it easier to attract crossparty support, which will make it easier to get through the committee process and make it to the floor. Whether the minority pursues moderate or ideological bills is their decision.
  • Second, the philosophy of chamber leadership, particularly the presiding officer (Speaker or Senate President) and Rules Committee chair. Some have a philosophy of letting bills go through the process on their own, under the belief that the process itself will take care of unpopular bills.1 Other leaders have a more active approach, using procedural mechanisms to prevent unpopular bills from ever coming to a vote.

Comparing the House to the Senate

One way to sort out these two possibilities is to compare the chambers. If Democrats are making a strategic decision to pursue moderate instead of liberal bills, we’d probably see their batting average rise in both chambers. But if leaders within each chamber are changing their approach, then we might see the batting average move separately within each chamber. After all, the House changed speakers in 2009 (to David Clark) and again in 2011 (to Becky Lockhart). The Senate made a change in 2009 (to Michael Waddoups) and made no changes until a few weeks ago. So let’s look at each chamber separately.

Partisan batting averages in the Utah House

Partisan batting averages in the Utah House

That’s the House. There was a 40 point gap in 2009; it fell to a 2 point gap in 2012. (More detailed statistics are here.) Now for the Senate, which had a 31 point gap in 2009 fall to a 11 point gap in 2012.

Partisan batting averages in the Utah Senate

Partisan batting averages in the Utah Senate

Both chambers experienced a spike in 2009, which suggests that legislative Democrats may have pursued more liberal policies that year that simply had less chance of passage. (Here are some possible examples.)

However, things leveled off in the Senate after 2010, while the House continued to experience a steep decline. This suggests that the change in leadership (from David Clark to Becky Lockhart) may have had tangible effects in the House. Indeed, initial reporting after the change in Speakership referenced dissatisfaction with Clark’s “heavy hand.”

Wrapping up

It’s hard to know exactly why Democrats were more successful at getting their bills considered in 2012 than in previous years. Maybe they chose to pursue more moderate bills. Maybe they received gentler treatment from leadership.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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