Mike Rogers: Lawmakers Should Spend More Time in D.C.

Outgoing congressman says more district time, less committee work, diminishes expertise on important concerns.

The morning sun begins to rise in front of the U.S. Capitol.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
June 25, 2014, 9:44 a.m.

Mem­bers of Con­gress don’t spend enough time in Wash­ing­ton to­geth­er do­ing de­tailed com­mit­tee work re­quired for ex­pert­ise on the im­port­ant is­sues con­front­ing the na­tion, says out­go­ing House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mike Ro­gers.

Huh?

That sure sounds like polit­ic­ally dan­ger­ous “in­side-the-Belt­way” apostasy that most law­makers today would adam­antly avoid and re­ject — at least pub­licly.

But Ro­gers, first elec­ted to Con­gress in 2000, is not run­ning for reelec­tion this fall. He would lose his chair­man­ship be­cause of House GOP term lim­its if he stayed, any­how.

In­stead, the Michigan Re­pub­lic­an has already an­nounced that he will join Cu­mu­lus Me­dia after the end of this ses­sion as a ra­dio host. And in some ways, it seems, he’s already talk­ing like an out­side ob­serv­er of Con­gress.

Speak­ing Wed­nes­day to re­port­ers on Cap­it­ol Hill dur­ing a Chris­ti­an Sci­ence Mon­it­or break­fast, Ro­gers did speak sol­emnly about Ir­aq and how the in­tel­li­gence re­port­ing from Ir­aq “sends chills down my spine” over the pos­sib­il­ity of a ter­ror­ist at­tack against the United States.

But his con­ver­sa­tion touched on oth­er mat­ters, in­clud­ing his be­lief that law­makers needed to spend more time work­ing with­in their com­mit­tees and with each oth­er in Wash­ing­ton.

“The prob­lem we’ve got­ten ourselves in­to in Con­gress is, we get yanked around in some of the pop­u­list trends at home,” said Ro­gers.

He said that in­cludes the no­tion that it’s ne­ces­sar­ily bet­ter for law­makers to be at home — one ex­ample, he says, in which his party lead­er­ship has geared it­self to “the smal­lest part of the ma­jor­ity.”

But Ro­gers says the real­ity is that the less time spent in com­mit­tee work and fo­cus­ing on spe­cif­ic is­sues with­in the vari­ous top­ic­al com­mit­tee jur­is­dic­tions, the more di­min­ished that over­all con­gres­sion­al ex­pert­ise on those top­ics be­come.

“If every mem­ber is a gen­er­al­ist, then we are go­ing to have a prob­lem,” he said.

He said there needs to be “more time in com­mit­tee work­ing on these is­sues; if that means stay­ing in D.C. five days a week, then so be it.”

In the weeks be­fore Re­pub­lic­ans took over the House ma­jor­ity in 2011, then-in­com­ing Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor ac­tu­ally played up how the new House le­gis­lat­ive cal­en­dar would be over­hauled — in­clud­ing by giv­ing mem­bers more time in their dis­tricts to listen to con­stitu­ents.

What has been in place ever since is es­sen­tially a sched­ule of the House be­ing in ses­sion for two weeks, fol­lowed by one week off. And rarely do ses­sion weeks last four days; more typ­ic­ally they last three.

Turns out, Ro­gers is not alone this week in his view that Con­gress is not in Wash­ing­ton enough and that law­makers should place more em­phas­is on com­mit­tee work.

On Tues­day, the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter’s Com­mis­sion on Polit­ic­al Re­form re­leased a “blue­print to strengthen our demo­cracy.” And in that re­port, the com­mis­sion takes note that mem­bers are spend­ing more time in their home dis­tricts, with short­er work­weeks in Wash­ing­ton and more state and loc­al “dis­trict work peri­ods.”

The re­port says, “Mem­bers typ­ic­ally ar­rive in Wash­ing­ton on Tues­day for votes sched­uled to start in the even­ing that day and leave after votes on Thursday af­ter­noon. This trun­cated sched­ule leaves only one full day — Wed­nes­day — for com­mit­tee hear­ings, markups, and the oth­er ne­ces­sary in­gredi­ents for fruit­ful le­gis­lat­ing.”

The com­mis­sion does ac­know­ledge that the me­dia and po­ten­tial op­pon­ents of­ten cri­ti­cize mem­bers for not spend­ing max­im­um time in their dis­trict. But the up­shot, it says, is that this has led to less in­ter­ac­tion among mem­bers them­selves, or time to make real over­tures to each oth­er on shared in­terests and is­sues.

The re­port goes on to say that “these de­vel­op­ments have co­in­cided with a de­crease in the powers and in­flu­ence of con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees and the cent­ral­iz­a­tion of power in the party lead­er­ship.”

“The weak­en­ing of the com­mit­tee sys­tem in Con­gress has had a very de­le­ter­i­ous ef­fect: It has de­prived Con­gress of the op­por­tun­ity to build stronger net­works of ex­pert­ise and ex­per­i­ence, lim­ited op­por­tun­it­ies for col­lab­or­a­tion and team-build­ing, and con­trib­uted to a sense of dis­en­fran­chise­ment among many rank-and-file mem­bers,” the re­port adds.

A solu­tion offered by the com­mis­sion: Changes to the le­gis­lat­ive cal­en­dar that would in­clude syn­chron­ized five-day work­weeks in Wash­ing­ton for the House and Sen­ate, with three weeks in ses­sion fol­lowed by one-week state and dis­trict work peri­ods.

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