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Post Leadership
Posted at 10:31 AM ET, 08/05/2011

Should Congress really get so much vacation?

Congress goes into August recess — and that’s only a fraction of the 11 weeks our congressional leaders get away from the Hill each year.
Well isn’t that nice. Two days into the August recess, and the market dives more than 500 points. Happy birthday, Mr. President.

The American economy suddenly looks like it’s reached the end of its string, in the words of the Post’s Steve Pearlstein, and Congress is on vacation for four more weeks. As Steve notes in his column, there are limits to what Congress can do: Despite all the blame pointed toward Washington for not repairing the economy, it’s traditionally markets that do most of the fixing. But there is plenty Congress could do—and should do quickly—if it actually worked like most leaders do.

But it doesn’t, as we all know too well. When they are working, the leaders in Congress are almost entirely dysfunctional, frequently unprofessional, often small-minded and almost always focused on the short term. When they’re not working—and that’s an astonishing amount of time—they may stay in touch, but they’re not really on the clock, either.

One look at the 112th Congress’s calendar will be sobering to anyone working in America. Congress is on recess or not in session almost 11 weeks of the year. Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office bragged in this video that the calendar creates 32 weeks in session (Congress spends another 10 “constituent weeks” at home in their district)—an 11-percent drop. Surely, the argument will be made that Congress needs all that time off to spend with its constituents, but with 10 weeks carved out specifically for that purpose, that argument loses much of its power.

Compare that to the average American’s 18 days of allowed vacation—or a little more than three weeks—and it can be hard to swallow how much time Congress is off. Consider that most Americans don’t even take all their vacation due to fear of job loss, work pressures or limited funds for getting away, and the discrepancy is downright stomach-churning. When Americans do (particularly when they’re in high-pressure leadership jobs), they tend to spend a sad but often necessary amount of it working.

Granted, Congress spends more time working than they used to: Modern conveniences such as air conditioning and jet planes turned what was once a part-time job into a nearly full-time one. But this is 2011, people. We live in a world in which the economy can go from bad to worse in an instant, in which earthquakes and tsunamis and political uprisings in far corners of the globe can have a tremendous impact here at home, in which technology has so sped up the pace of worldwide events that keeping up means being always—or at least almost always—on.

The thing about leadership is that it’s supposed to be an all-consuming job—one that you’re so passionate about and filled with purpose around that it’s hard to pull yourself away. Events of the world don’t take off 11 weeks of the year. And neither do these so-called leaders’ constituents.

More from On Leadership:

Sen. John Kerry: Can the U.S. afford not to invest in foreign aid?

Astier Almedom: Somalia: A case of leadership (not compassion) fatigue

Jena McGregor: How sarcasm can boost creativity

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By  |  10:31 AM ET, 08/05/2011

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