When Republicans took control of the House in January, among the changes they announced for the 112th Congress was a new calendar that would allow members to spend one week in their home districts for every two weeks they spent in Washington.
That plan will remain in place during the 2012 session, according to a new calendar released by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) office Thursday.
The two-weeks-on, one-week-off plan was originally crafted to let members spend longer stretches of time in their districts -- a particular boon for the 89 members of the House Republican freshman class, many of whom may face tough races in 2012.
But the House calendar has run into some problems as well, as our colleague Ben Pershing has noted. With the House and Senate often spending alternate weeks in Washington, members at times have struggled to find time to work together with their counterparts from the other chamber.
That has resulted in unexpected days in session for both chambers as government shutdown deadlines have loomed; it’s also creaed difficulties for leaders in scheduling closed-door huddles to tackle the debt-ceiling dilemma in the summer as well as in arranging the debt supercommittee’s meetings this fall.
(As we noted in August, for the four-week period from Oct. 17 to Nov. 14, both chambers are simultaneously in session for only four days, from Nov. 1 to Nov. 4. The supercommittee has continued to hold meetings when one chamber is out of session, and senators stayed in Washington for the panel’s most recent meeting on Wednesday.)
In a letter to members Thursday morning announcing the 2012 calendar, Cantor said that the House two-weeks-on, one-week-off schedule has allowed members to spend more time at home with their constituents and has been one of several changes that have benefited the chamber as a whole.
“As with this year, the goal of next year’s calendar is to create certainty, increase efficiency and productivity in the legislative process, protect committee time, and afford Members the opportunity to gain valuable input from their constituents at home,” Cantor wrote. “I believe this year’s calendar, because of its new design, helped improve the legislative culture of the House.”
At her weekly news conference Thursday morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took aim at the calendar, arguing that “the American people deserve better” than a plan that has the House in session for only six days in January.
“It really makes you wonder about the schedule, but particularly at this time, when the American people are feeling so much pain,” Pelosi said. “And while I value the time that members spend in their districts -- as I mentioned, they’ve been spending time with small businesses the last break -- at some point you have to bring the message home and represent your people, find agreement. You can’t do that if everyone is at home.”
Cantor also highlighted that since the beginning of the 112th Congress, every piece of legislation must now include a Constitutional Authority Statement; commemorative resolutions have been done away with; and the percentage of measures fast-tracked on the floor under suspension of the rules has decreased from 80 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2011.
“Combined, these reforms have helped fulfill the Speaker’s commitment to a more deliberative legislative process,” Cantor wrote. “For example, the House has taken 800 roll call votes through October 14 of this year. By the same time last year, the House had taken just 565 roll calls.”
Typically, the House is in session for fewer days during election years than during non-election years, and that holds true for 2012. The chamber is slated to meet next year for a total of 109 legislative days, spread out over 28 mostly-four-day workweeks.
For 2011, the chamber was originally scheduled to be in session a total of 123 days over the course of 32 workweeks.
The initial schedule usually serves only as a template, though, and already the House has met for more days than planned. As of Oct. 27, the House had been in session for 137 days this year; 112 of those were regular sessions while 25 were brief pro-forma sessions during which no legislative business is conducted.
According to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) office, the House in 2007 was scheduled to be in session for 145 days and ended up meeting for 152 days. And in 2009, the House was expected to meet for 138 days, while the final number of days in session ended up being 148. Figures were not immediately available for the 2008 session.
Another aspect of the calendar unlikely to go according to plan this year: Congress’s target adjournment date. In his letter last December unveiling the 2011 schedule, Cantor announced a planned adjournment date of Dec. 8 for the House.
“This will allow Members to plan their fall and early winter schedules now,” he wrote. “If we are able to adjourn before December 8, it will be the first time in fourteen years that the House has finished prior to its target adjournment date.”
But with a Dec. 23 deadline for Congress to vote on the recommendations of the debt supercommittee – and with more work left to be done on appropriations and other measures – it’s more likely than not Congress will yet again continue working until the eleventh hour.
This story has been updated.