Part-Time Congress

By Norman Ornstein
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

The House of Representatives returns this week to an overloaded agenda. A promise of aggressive oversight of the deal with Dubai to manage U.S. ports will compete with the following:

Renewal of the Patriot Act; the conflict with the White House over electronic surveillance; the need to hammer out a budget by the beginning of April; health care and pension reform (highlighted by the desire to find a fix for the bumpy rollout of the Medicare prescription drug law); Katrina relief and repair of a dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security; lobbying and ethics reform; and a host of other issues.

The House should be well-rested to take on its daunting workload, after a generous recess (known officially as a "district work period") over President's Day. That was preceded by a recess for the entire month of January and by a February in which voting was done on all of three days (along with another three days with no votes before 6:30 p.m.). And members had better be rested, because if their published schedule for the year ahead is followed, they'll have to compress their work into a tiny number of days. The House schedule for 2006, the second session of the 109th Congress, has a grand total of 71 days when votes are scheduled to take place, along with an additional 26 when no votes will occur before 6:30 p.m. The total of 97 calendar days, counted generously, is the smallest number in 60 years and the days of what Harry Truman derided as that "do-nothing 80th Congress."

During the 1960s and '70s, the average Congress was in session 323 days. In the 1980s and '90s, the average declined to 278. The days in session have plummeted since; it's likely that the average per two-year Congress for the first six years of the Bush presidency will be below 250.

Of course, days in session and days voting don't give a full picture of Congress and its work. Committees and subcommittees hold hearings, do oversight and mark up bills. Still, the average Congress in the 1960s and '70s had 5,372 committee and subcommittee meetings; in the 1980s and 1990s, the average was 4,793. In the last Congress, the 108th, the number was 2,135. We do not have final figures yet for 2005, but they are likely to be lower yet, and with oversight practically nonexistent.

When I came to Washington in 1969, I became familiar with what was called the "Tuesday-to-Thursday Club," the band of members, mostly from the Northeast and regions near Washington, who would try to limit their time in the capital to three days a week. They would leave late Thursday evening or early Friday morning to go home and return here late Monday night or early Tuesday. Those club members were in the minority; most legislators spent the full workweek in Washington and were here two or three weekends a month as well when Congress was in session.

Today the "Tuesday-to-Thursday Club" includes nearly all members, with one distinction from the earlier era: They get back into Washington late Tuesday night, or even early Wednesday, and head out again early Thursday afternoon, having spent just one full day and parts of two others on Capitol Hill.

Why the change? One reason is that most lawmakers now leave their families back in the district instead of having them live in Washington. Another is the explosion in the number of flights from area airports, making it easier for lawmakers from all over the country, including even Alaska and Hawaii, to go back and forth.

But there are other, more important reasons. One is the drive for members to get out and raise money, both for their own campaigns and for those of their current and prospective party colleagues. Many members now have "leadership PACs," which are required for those who want to become subcommittee or committee chairmen or to move up in party leadership. These PACs raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions over and above a member's own needs, in order to help "the team." Another is the visceral distaste of current members, especially the majority Republicans who set the schedule, for Washington. Service in Congress is not a privilege and an experience to be savored so much as it is like taking castor oil -- an unpleasant necessity, and one indulged in as little as possible.

Then there is the strategy of the majority leadership. Getting bills passed, keeping party discipline and satisfying interest groups means folding legislation into a small number of huge omnibus bills, bringing them up with little notice and less debate, structuring the votes around restrictive rules that limit or forbid amendments, and demanding party fealty on the votes that take place by labeling them "procedural." The less time the members spend in hearings, floor debate and generally poking around the Hill, the easier it is for the leaders to get their way without scrutiny or challenge.

Mention the part-time nature of this Congress to many people, and the reaction is, "Good, the less time they're in session, the less the danger to the country." Wrong. Congress does not do less -- it has its full impact on society -- it just does things in a shoddier way.

A part-time Congress in a country with a $13 trillion economy and federal budget near $3 trillion, in a globalized, technologically sophisticated world, is itself a danger to the checks and balances built into American democracy, and to high-quality, careful policymaking and oversight. It's not too much to ask Congress to commit to spending at least half the year -- 26 weeks -- working full-time, five days a week, thus providing at least a measure of the deliberation and attention to detail that are so lacking now.

The writer is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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