Stop Complaining That Congress Doesn’t Work Enough

We love to ridicule members for not being in session more often. But it’s a grueling job, and it’s not all about legislation.

UNITED STATES - August 26: Rep. Charlie Dent, R-PA., hosted a Town Hall Meeting for constituents of the 15th District of Pennsylvania on Monday, August 26, 2013, at the Kutztown Train Station in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. The Town Hall hosted well over 150 people and addressed topics ranging from the jobs to the NSA but the afternoons main topics where clearly about Obama Care and immigration reform. 
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Alex Seitz Wald
Dec. 12, 2013, 4 p.m.

The House fin­ished its last offic­al busi­ness of the year Thursday night and many law­makers quickly fled Wash­ing­ton, after spend­ing only 126 days in ses­sion for all of 2013. Next year, House mem­bers are sched­uled to be in Wash­ing­ton even less — just 113 days.

It’s noth­ing new (the House was in ses­sion for 107 days in 2012), and le­gis­lat­ive in­dol­ence is a fa­vor­ite top­ic of every­one from late-night talk-show hosts to your neigh­bor­hood barber. It’s one of the few ways to dis­cuss polit­ics with strangers or near-strangers in this po­lar­ized so­ci­ety and not worry about of­fend­ing any­one. It’s a safe, lightly pop­u­list, non­par­tis­an polit­ic­al cri­ti­cism that your big­oted uncle and hip­pie col­lege-stu­dent cous­in can equally ap­pre­ci­ate at Christ­mas din­ner. It re­quires no ser­i­ous ana­lys­is or un­der­stand­ing of how Con­gress works, nor of the in­di­vidu­al hu­man be­ings who walk its halls. It’s the low­est com­mon de­nom­in­at­or of polit­ic­al dis­course.

And it’s also dead wrong.

Con­gress’s lazi­ness is so taken for gran­ted that it’s nev­er really chal­lenged. In real­ity, while there are lots of nice perks, mem­bers of Con­gress have a gruel­ing job, wheth­er in Wash­ing­ton or at home in their states and dis­tricts. And in an age when the two cham­bers don’t do much, they may be bet­ter off at home any­way.

When the House re­leases its cal­en­dar for the up­com­ing year, as it did for 2014 a few weeks ago, it in­ev­it­ably eli­cits head­lines like this: “Con­gress Work­ing Less Than 1/3 of Year in 2014, Get­ting Full Salary.” One blog offered a faux re­cruit­ing pitch: “Want a job with 239 va­ca­tion days? Be­come a mem­ber of Con­gress.” An­oth­er was more blunt, call­ing Con­gress the “lazi­est sacks in his­tory of be­ing lazy sacks.”

But you might want to think twice be­fore run­ning for Con­gress in the hopes of get­ting a cushy desk job. Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by the Con­gres­sion­al Man­age­ment Found­a­tion, a non­profit that for the past 35 years has worked as a sort of con­sultancy for law­makers, mem­bers of Con­gress work on av­er­age 70 hours a week when they’re in town and al­most 60 hours a week when they’re not.

A sample sched­ule provided to the found­a­tion shows a typ­ic­al mem­ber be­gin­ning work with a speak­ing en­gage­ment at 9 a.m. and work­ing straight through un­til 9:30 p.m. Wash, rinse, re­peat the next day — and every day after that. Just 15 per­cent to 17 per­cent of an av­er­age law­maker’s wak­ing life is re­served for per­son­al or fam­ily time. A large ma­jor­ity of mem­bers — 66 per­cent — say they’ve missed a “ma­jor fam­ily-re­lated event” with­in the past year be­cause of their job, while nine in 10 say they don’t get enough time with their fam­ily. “We’ve worked with 500 mem­bers of Con­gress on stra­tegic plan­ning; we see their sched­ules,” says CMF Pres­id­ent and CEO Brad Fitch. “It’s a myth that mem­bers of Con­gress have it easy.”

Everything is sched­uled in law­makers’ lives, from hair­cuts to ex­er­cise to read­ing, which Fitch says cre­ates an “out-of-con­trol feel­ing.” Just 16 per­cent of law­makers say they feel they have “ad­equate con­trol” of their sched­ule.

Rep. Tim Ry­an, D-Ohio, said one of his goals in cre­at­ing the “Quiet Time Caucus,” which con­ducts an in­form­al 30-minute peri­od of si­lence weekly in the Con­gres­sion­al Pray­er Room, was to carve out space where law­makers can just pause. “Mem­bers of Con­gress nev­er have a mo­ment to just be quiet, from the mo­ment they get up in the morn­ing when they turn on Morn­ing Joe or whatever, to meet­ings and votes all day, to the mo­ment they fall asleep, of­ten with the TV on,” Ry­an told me in Ju­ly.

Be­ing in the dis­trict is bet­ter, but hardly a va­ca­tion. Rep­res­ent­at­ives spend long days — es­pe­cially week­ends when there are likely to be parades or sport­ing events — meet­ing with con­stitu­ents, tour­ing fa­cil­it­ies, speak­ing at gath­er­ings, hear­ing con­cerns from busi­nesses and non­profits, hold­ing town halls, and talk­ing to the press. While it’s of­ten dis­missed, this kind of work is a crit­ic­al part of their job. “Mem­bers have two primary re­spons­ib­il­it­ies: They have a le­gis­lat­ive re­spons­ib­il­ity and a rep­res­ent­at­ive re­spons­ib­il­ity,” Fitch ex­plains. There’s a reas­on they’re called rep­res­ent­at­ives. Every mem­ber has a story about get­ting lob­bied by a con­stitu­ent at a Little League game or in the su­per­mar­ket.

For many ju­ni­or House mem­bers who have little role in le­gis­la­tion, con­stitu­ent work is ar­gu­ably more im­port­ant than any­thing they’d do in Wash­ing­ton. Wheth­er it’s help­ing people get their So­cial Se­cur­ity checks or nav­ig­ate the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment, le­gis­lat­ors can at least see tan­gible be­ne­fits to their work.

The as­sump­tion that Con­gress should con­vene more is pre­dic­ated on the idea that mem­bers would get more done if they spent ad­di­tion­al time here. That may have been true in oth­er Con­gresses, but it’s clearly not the case in this one. It’s not only that Con­gress is po­lar­ized and grid­locked but that Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers are act­ively hos­tile to its work. When a spokes­man for House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor was asked about the new slimmed-down cal­en­dar shortly after Re­pub­lic­ans took the ma­jor­ity, he replied, “More days in ses­sion has al­ways res­ul­ted in big­ger, more in­trus­ive gov­ern­ment, not more pro­duc­tion.”

Former Rep. Tom Dav­is, R-Va., ex­plained it this way: “I think a lot of Re­pub­lic­ans feel they were put there to stop the Obama agenda”¦. You can look at it as the least pro­duct­ive Con­gress, but a lot of them see that as their job.”

Still, even GOP law­makers un­der­stand polit­ic­al real­it­ies. When Demo­crats took over the House in 2007 and in­sti­tuted a man­dat­ory five-day work­week, the Re­pub­lic­ans griped but ad­mit­ted they couldn’t do much. “The ma­jor­ity has had the bet­ter of this ar­gu­ment so far be­cause it is a lot of fun to talk about mem­bers of Con­gress that don’t work,” said then-GOP Whip Roy Blunt. “The late-night comedi­ans love the idea that Con­gress was sud­denly go­ing to work five days a week.”

None of this is to say that law­makers have been do­ing their jobs with dis­tinc­tion. They’ve passed a his­tor­ic­ally low num­ber of bills, let the gov­ern­ment shut down, and driv­en their ap­prov­al rat­ing to an all-time low. But spend­ing more time in Wash­ing­ton prob­ably won’t help much.


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