The frequent-flyer U.S. Congress: lawmakers work less in DC
AFROASIA NEWS / AFP – Anyone seeking a table at Carmine’s Italian restaurant near Capitol Hill on a Tuesday or Wednesday needs to battle a mid-week crush of Congress members and their staff.
But Mondays are far quieter — just like the floor of Congress. There are usually around nine events on a Monday, compared to as many as 30 on a midweek day, says Kelly Fitzgerald, Carmine’s director of special events and catering.
The mid-week crunch at Carmine’s underscores a trend: members of the U.S. Congress have been spending fewer days working in Washington since the late 2000s, according to a Reuters review of congressional records going back 18 years. Lawmakers increasingly try to cram their legislative work into the middle of the week in Washington and then rush back home.
Their absence from the capital reinforces the effects of a deepening partisan divide in recent years that has led to high-profile deadlocks over legislation previously seen as routine, according to some former lawmakers and political analysts.
Under pressure to spend more time in their home constituencies, often fund-raising for campaigns, members have less time to attend debates and mingle with other lawmakers.
“In any work setting, if you don’t know your colleagues, it makes it much more difficult to get things done,” said Dan Glickman, who was a Democratic House member from Kansas for 18 years until the mid-1990s and recalls more working days and fuller debates than the current Congress.
“…It makes it more difficult to build relationships,” said Glickman, who was U.S. secretary of agriculture after Congress.
He was a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform, which recommended in 2014 that Congress be in session conducting legislative business for 180 to 200 days a year.
(Graphic on congressional working days: http://tmsnrt.rs/1VsssoZ)
In 2015, the first year of a two-year Congress, the House of Representatives put in 130 working days, the Reuters review found. Compared with the first years of recent Congresses, that number has declined steadily since 2007, when the House worked 153 days — the high since 1998.
House members typically meet more often in the first year of a Congress because in the second year they have to run for reelection. This year, an election year, the House calendar foresees 111 working days in Washington, in line with the total in recent election years.
The House canceled its entire schedule last week after a snowstorm hit the East Coast. The Senate’s annual working days have not risen above 156 since reaching a peak of 188 in 2009.
The decline in working days in recent years has coincided with a slide in Americans’ approval rating for the legislature as the reputation of a “do-nothing” Congress has taken hold.
Since fiscal 1997, Congress has failed every year to enact on time all of the government appropriations bills needed for a full federal budget, the Congressional Research Service said.
More recently, polarized lawmakers often have been unable to find middle ground on pressing issues such as immigration, tax reform and gun safety. As of the end of 2014, about 75 percent of major issues were in deadlock, according to a calculation by Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution think tank.
To be sure, members of the House and the Senate, who are paid $174,000 a year, do important work outside of Washington. They meet with constituents in their home districts and raise campaign money by appearing and speaking at events.
Representative Ryan Zinke, a freshman Republican and former U.S. Navy Seal, said Congress could use more “team-building” activities, but he has not felt the need for more days in legislative session. Zinke is the only House member representing the large, sparsely populated state of Montana, and says he needs lots of travel time just to see his constituents.
“Last week I think I put on about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) traveling around Montana, and I saw about a third of the state,” he said.
Staying in legislative session more does not necessarily equate to getting more work done, said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican.
“It’s a matter of what you do with the time you are here, not just the total time you are here,” he said.
The Republican-led Congress had a relatively productive year in 2015, fixing a funding formula for Medicare doctors, passing a highway bill and approving fast-track authority for trade deals.
In 2011 and 2013, the total number of bills passed by Congress dipped below triple figures to 90 and 72 respectively. Last year’s Congress managed to enact 113.
Many bills are minor, however, so the total number does not necessarily correspond to productivity.
The recent decline in overall working days does not tell the whole story. There has also been a rise in so-called “pro-forma” days when lawmakers go into session sometimes for just a few minutes or even seconds, for procedural reasons. They are formally counted as sessions of the House and Senate, but Reuters did not include them in its tally.
Last year the House had 27 pro-forma days, none of which lasted more than seven minutes, the Reuters review found. In each of the last five years the House had more pro-forma days than in previous Congresses going back to 2002.
Those days are usually scheduled for Monday or Friday, enabling lawmakers to fly in and out of Washington without missing mid-week votes.
The typical House member returns to their district 40 or more times a year, said Brad Fitch of Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that advises lawmakers on managing their offices. It did a study showing that in 2013, the average House freshman spent $53,170 of taxpayer money on travel.
These days, fewer lawmakers move their families to the capital to live, said John Fortier, director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.
Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who has been Speaker of the House since October, sleeps on a cot in his Washington office during the congressional work-week and flies home to his family in Wisconsin on the weekend.
Vin Weber, who was a Republican congressman from Minnesota in the 1980s and 1990s, said that in the attempt to juggle all the demands they face at home and in Washington, today’s lawmakers have set themselves an impossible schedule.
“They are on planes constantly, back and forth, all the time,” he said. “There’s no rationality to it at all.”
The rising cost of election campaigns mean lawmakers have to devote more time to fund-raising outside Washington, said Glickman, now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
As a congressman, Glickman said, he often went to the House floor just to listen to the debate.
“If I did that now, I would be guilty of malpractice,” he said. “You need to be either in committee doing your work or raising money.” (Additional reporting by Alana Wise; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Stuart Grudgings)
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