An average member of the House puts in an 11-hour workday, but has only 11 minutes daily to devote to reading and 12 minutes to spend in his or her office on legislation and speech-writing, a House study has found.
The study, made public by the House Commission on Administrative Review, headed by Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), portrays House members as overwhelmed by increasingly complex issues and conflicting demands that leave them too little time "simply," as the study notes, "to think."
"Rarely do [House] members have sufficient blocks of time when they are free from the frenetic pace of the Washington 'treadmill' to think about the implications of various public policies," the report says.
"No matter how conscientious a representative might be, the splintering of his/her time into so many tiny bits and pieces hampers the effective conduct of lawmaking, oversight and constituent service functions," the study adds. As a result, it says, systematic oversight of federal programs has become a "near impossibility."
In an analysis of scheduling logs kept by House members' appointment secretaries from May to July, the study commission found that a typical representative's 11-hour day includes 3 minutes with the House leadership, 26 minutes with constituents, 46 minutes answering mail and signing letters, and 53 minutes with his or her staff.
An average of 4 hours and 25 minutes in a House member's day is taken up on the House floor and in committee and subcommittee sessions where, the report says, competing demands on legislators' time pose a "critical dilemma" - whether House members can handle all their duties competently.
As evidence of the continuing trend, the study notes that the number of committee and subcommittee meetings has more than doubled from 3,210 in 1946 to 6,975 last year. In the same 20 years, it adds, the number of hours the House was in session almost doubled from 937 to 1,789. Today the report says, an average House member serves on about six committees and subcommittees, a significant increase from 20 years ago.
The study was released by the commission to support one of the key recommendations it has already announced - establishment of a select committee to draft a "basic reform" of the House committee system in an attempt to reduce the conflicting demands on members' time.
The commission tentatively proposed 47 recommendations last month for reorganizing the way the House manages itself, including establishment of a House administrator to supervise day-to-day operations. House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) endorsed the commission's recommendations earlier this month and said he intends to seek House action on them in October.
In February, the Senate approved the first major reorganization of its committee system in 30 years, including a reduction in the number of committees and joint committees. As the Obey commission notes, demands on legislators' time have risen significantly during the past 40 years and Congress has made recurrent efforts since 1945 to grapple with its members' time troubles.
The commission attributes the rising demands on lawmakers' time to various factors, including growth of federal departments and regulatory agencies, increased complexity of issues such as environmental pollution and nuclear weapons proliferation, and a rise in the number of constituents each House member represents.
This trend, the study says, has resulted in "severe fragmentation of a [House] member's time; the huge growth of work that threatens Congress' ability to effectively discharge its lawmaking, oversight and representative duties; and uneven, ineffective and inefficient distribution of labor within the House."
Of 154 House members interviewed by the commission's staff, the report says, 64 per cent said scarce time and scheduling problems caused them difficulty "in effectively performing their public duties."
Because of mounting legislative work, the report asserts, Congress "tends to react from crisis to crisis," lacking time to plan ahead. The commission urges that detailed recommendations for reorganizing the House committee system be completed by July.