Congress is voting less this year, but is it actually working less?

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 8:57 PM

Sometimes it seems there aren't enough hours in the day for all that members of Congress have to do: Attend committee hearings, meet with constituents, tour their districts, ride in parades and kiss babies. Not to mention raise money and win reelection.

But the most basic function for any lawmaker is to stand up and be counted - to go to the House or Senate floor and cast votes. For the first month of the 112th Congress, members didn't do much of that.

The House held 25 recorded votes in the first month of this session, compared with 53 in the same period in the 111th Congress and 73 at the start of the 110th Congress. The Senate had just 11 recorded votes in the first month, after having 36 two years ago and 43 four years ago.

What's behind the precipitous drop? And are votes really a good barometer of how hard Congress is working? The answers are different for each chamber.

In the House, where the party in charge can do nearly anything it wants, the relatively small number of votes reflects a deliberate decision by Republicans to begin the year differently.

"This Congress, the calendar promotes quality over quantity, allowing time for substantive committee work in addition to votes on the floor," said Laena Fallon, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

Fallon noted that House committees and subcommittees have been busy holding hearings, including more than 30 sessions scheduled for this week.

In a December letter to colleagues explaining the schedule for this Congress, Cantor emphasized that certain kinds of votes would happen far less often: "Gone are congratulatory resolutions. Post office namings will be handled on a less frequent basis." Cantor added that the schedule would include at least one week of recess every month so "members could return home to listen to their constituents on a regular basis," as they did last week.

The House further pared back its vote calendar for a few days in mid-January after the shootings in Tucson that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

But the House calendar also represents a choice on the part of GOP leaders to retain a relatively narrow focus in the first weeks of the session - at least compared to the last time Republicans took control of the chamber: After Republicans captured control of Congress in the 1994 election, the House held 90 recorded votes during the first month of the 104th Congress.

That flurry of activity in 1995 came as Republicans sought to keep the promises they made in the "Contract With America," and the House voted in the first 100 days of the session on a host of ambitious bills. Similarly, in 2007 the new Democratic majority passed a half-dozen key bills in the first 100 hours of the Congress.

This year, by contrast, GOP leaders took power with a narrower list of immediate priorities, including last month's vote to repeal President Obama's health-reform bill and a handful of initiatives to cut government spending. Their 2010 "Pledge to America" did not include a vow to pass any bills in a certain time frame.

Overall, Republicans have been less eager to schedule floor votes than Democrats have in the past decade. While Democrats averaged 63 votes in the first month of the past two Congresses, the three GOP-controlled Congresses before that averaged just under 16 votes in the first month.

Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said he had heard Republicans say this year that they would judge their own success not based on how many laws they pass, but how few. "They've got a different measure of what they're going to be doing," Wolfensberger said.

As for the Senate, the chamber had an unusually long and busy lame-duck session in December, which explains why Democratic leaders decided to spend all but one day out of session in the first three weeks of January. Senators used that time to catch up on state activities they might otherwise have done in December.

Then the two parties commenced protracted negotiations on a series of changes to Senate rules, with the result being that the chamber didn't hold a single recorded vote until Jan. 26. Both parties emerged from those negotiations vowing to be more bipartisan.

So, unlike in the House - where Republican leaders immediately took up a health-reform repeal bill they knew Democrats would not back - Senate Democrats have deliberately pursued bills that wouldn't split the chamber on party lines.

"A high volume of roll-call votes sometimes says more about the amount of gridlock in the Senate than it does about the level of legislative activity," said Senate Democratic leadership spokesman Brian Fallon, adding that Democrats "will continue to look at bills that offer potential for bipartisan cooperation as opposed to ones that get bogged down."

After allowing the GOP to have a vote on health-care repeal, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) moved on to a Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill supported by both parties, allowing ample Republican amendments, and then moved on to a consensus package of judicial nominations.

"I don't think the number of votes is really a measure of productivity," Wolfensberger said. "In some cases, the lack of recorded votes could mean they agree on things and are doing things by voice vote."

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