New data show how little time the Legislature spends per bill

The median bill enacted in 2018 received a total of only seven minutes of House and Senate floor debate before passage.

Today the Utah Legislature concludes the fifth week of its seven-week General Session. The pace is about to pick up incredibly. I’ve collected new data on how the Utah House and Utah Senate spend their time on the floor. I’ll use this new data to illustrate what’s coming in the next two weeks.

I include here only time spent on the floor of each chamber considering bills. I exclude time hearing the governor’s “State of the State” address, time in recesses or “saunters,” time on personal privilege motions, time hearing committee reports, and so on. I include time debating bills, voting on bills, and making motions directly relevant to a specific bill.

The first chart plots the number of bills heard each day in the Utah House and Utah Senate. If a bill was heard even briefly on a particular day, such as a 30-second motion to “circle” the bill (that is, a motion to delay consideration of a bill) it appears in the daily counts. There is a separate vertical line for each day, red for the Utah House and blue for the Utah Senate. The gaps are weekends and President’s Day. (Click any figure in this post to enlarge it.)

Bills considered per day

House rules require considering each bill only once before passage, but Senate rules require considering each bill twice on separate days. The Senate routinely waives this requirement in the end-of-session crunch. Thus, the Senate considers more bills per day than the House in the 4th, 5th, and 6th weeks (when the Senate follows its rules more faithfully), but the difference typically disappears in the 7th week (when the Senate does not).

The next chart shows the hours spent per day in the House and Senate considering bills. As bills progress from committees to the floor, each chamber schedules more time for floor debate, so there is an upward trend over the course of the session. The House typically spends more floor time overall considering bills than the Senate.

Hours spent considering bills on the floor each day

The real question, though, is how much time is spent per bill. Turns out I have a chart for that too. For each day of the session, this chart shows how many minutes were devoted to the average bill heard on the floor. I include all floor time on each bill over the course of a day. If HB42 was discussed for 5 minutes, then circled, then discussed for 3 more minutes later that same day, then that is added up to 8 minutes for that bill that day.

Average floor minutes per bill

A few outlying spikes cause other bars to get compressed down so small that the chart is nearly unreadable. Here is the same data, but omitting outliers where the average exceeded 20 to make the trends more apparent:

Average floor minutes per bill (outliers removed)

Notice that the House consistently spends more time per bill than the Senate. Notice also that the Senate is more consistent over the course of the session than the House, which visibly spends less time per bill in the final week than earlier in the session.

Both chambers have spent less time per bill as the bill load has increased. In this next chart, the red line shows the total number of bills passed per year, growing 23% from 436 in 2009 to 535 in 2018. The blue line shows that the median floor time per enacted bill (in seconds) has steadily declined from over 800 seconds per bill to around 700 seconds. It’s unavoidable: As the Legislature passes more bills, it will have less time to consider each one carefully.

More bill enactments means less time (in seconds) per bill

I’ve been speaking of the average or median time spent per bill. To be sure, floor consideration is not evenly distributed among bills. The next figure plots a separate vertical line for each bill that was considered in 2018, with enacted bills in the left panel and other bills in the right panel. Each vertical line represents the total number of floor minutes (across both chambers) spent on a particular bill. I’ve sorted the bills by how much total time was spent on them. You can see that a few outlying bills received more than 40 minutes of total consideration, time, but the large majority of enacted bills received less than 20 minutes of floor consideration.

Total floor time per bill (2018)

Let’s pick this figure apart a bit more. The median bill enacted in 2018 received a total of 11.8 minutes of floor consideration. Those 11.8 minutes include time spent (in either chamber) on motions relevant to the bill, debates about the bill, and voting on the bill.

Let’s deduct from this 11.8 the time spent voting. In my experience, it takes roughly 2 minutes for a typical House vote and roughly 3 minutes for a typical Senate vote. These are ballpark guesses. Subtracting roughly 5 minutes from 11.8, I estimate that the median enacted bill received something like 7 minutes of actual debate. Total. Across both chambers.

Louder for the folks in back: The median bill enacted in 2018 received a total of only seven minutes of House and Senate floor debate before passage. We need to have a serious discussion about whether that’s enough, and about whether the Legislature has sufficient resources to vet bills properly before passing them.

Here’s the same data for each session going back to 2009. This time I’ve marked enacted bills in blue and other bills in red, then overlaid them into the same figure. I showed earlier that the median floor time per enacted bill has shrunk over the past decade. You can see that trend here, too: A lot more bills crossed the 50-minute mark in the first 5 years shown than in the latter 5 years.

Total floor time per bill, by year

I’ve been writing about the Legislature’s workload and vetting for nearly a decade now, though this is the first time I’ve pulled together data on how floor time gets used. There’s more I’d like to collect. I’d like to collect data on each bill’s impact (it’s fiscal impact, the amount of Utah Code affected, and so on) to see whether there is a relationship between impact and floor consideration. Trends reported here would be less concerning if the bills receiving scant consideration tend to make only slight updates to state law.

I’d also like to collect data on committee consideration. The Legislature schedules much more time for committee hearings than for floor debate. That will be harder to compile than the floor time data, unfortunately.

It may take me another decade to collect the additional data I’d like. It turns out that this sort of hobby research isn’t really part of my job description at BYU. But hey, if the Legislature wants to pass HB183 this year to fund an outside study of its workload and capacity, well, I know a guy who might be interested.

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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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