THE BLOG
07/05/2013 08:52 pm ET Updated Sep 04, 2013

Congress Still Not Working

Maybe it's just envy. I'll fully admit it, up front. After all, who wouldn't want a job where you get one-third of the time you're supposed to be working as free vacation days? Nice work, if you can find it. So maybe there's a tinge of envy which propels me, on a semi-annual basis, to essentially air the same complaint. But the regularity of these rants is also due to the fact that not much changes in Washington, ever, and one of the reasons that Congress just doesn't work these days is that Congress just doesn't work all that much.

We'll start with the numbers. From the beginning of this year to the last day in June -- exactly one-half of the year -- there were 181 days on the calendar. Subtracting weekends brings this total down to 129 days. In the first half of the year, there were five federal holidays (one more than usual, due to the year having a presidential Inauguration Day). This leaves us with 124 workdays.

The House managed to work on 84 of these days. The Senate only chalked up 78 days of doing business. That is, respectively, 67.7 percent and 62.9 percent, which is pretty dismal when you consider how much paid vacation the average American worker gets. The House was on vacation (to put it another way) for 40 days so far this year, and the Senate took 46 days off. Out of almost 25 full workweeks, the House took off eight of them and the Senate took off more than nine full weeks.

Historically, the record is also pretty dismal. The Senate is at the low end of the range of workdays for the first half of the year, and the House is in the middle of its recent historical range of how much work they do. But in good years, the Senate overperforms the House, so the House range doesn't really go as high. Here are the figures for the past few years (all of these figures are from data found on the Library of Congress' website) of the days Congress actually worked:

2013 House -- 84 days

2013 Senate -- 78 days

2012 House -- 85 days

2012 Senate -- 84 days

2011 House -- 79 days

2011 Senate -- 76 days

2010 House -- 84 days

2010 Senate -- 89 days

2009 House -- 85 days

2009 Senate -- 97 days

2008 House -- 80 days

2008 Senate -- 102 days

2007 House -- 92 days

2007 Senate -- 101 days

Here are the figures for the past three two-term presidents, for the equivalent year into their terms:

Bush

2005 House -- 73 days

2005 Senate -- 82 days

Clinton

1997 House -- 75 days

1997 Senate -- 89 days

Reagan

1985 House -- 74 days

1985 Senate -- 81 days

No matter what year you pick, these are not exactly numbers to be proud of, to put it mildly. As mentioned, this year's totals are on the very low end for the Senate, and towards the middle of a less-impressive range for the House.

And you'll note that because we're only measuring the first half of the year -- up to the end of June -- this year's numbers don't even include the current week, which both the House and Senate (of course) took off. The second half of the legislative calendar is often even more pathetic than the first, in fact, due to the five or six weeks Congress takes off in August, and the end-of-the-year holidays, where they also routinely take off an entire month. Good thing it's not an election year, because that would mean they would also be planning to take a large chunk off in October, to campaign.

This is what we get for our money, folks.

This year in particular is even more disgraceful than normal -- which is what motivated me to write this semi-annual rant instead of my usual weekly Friday column. Because Congress left some very big unfinished business hanging as they scurried out of town last week. They missed a legislative deadline which doubled the rate students pay on their student loans.

This is the message Congress is sending: Sorry, all you aspiring college students, but we just couldn't manage to squeeze it in what with our many, many days off this year. You guys understand, right? We had to go back home to raise some campaign cash, and you students got lost in the shuffle. That's the way it goes, so suck it up, students. Hey -- how's this -- we'll fix it later, and then backdate it. That won't interfere with your planning for the next school year, will it? Well, even if it does, you'll be happy to note that we had a great time in [fill in vacation junket destination] while we were all busy not doing the people's business (but don't worry, each and every one of us drew a paycheck for this week, so we'll be fine).

Think this is too harsh? I don't, and I'm not even a student. In fact, I don't think it even comes close to the disdain Congress just exhibited to their constituents. Because this was such an egregious dereliction of duty, in fact, I found myself agreeing with Greta Van Susteren (which doesn't happen often), who also wrote an attempt to shame Congress for their lack of work ethics last week. Van Susteren directed her wrath at the Senate, but she did so in a very non-partisan fashion, which I share. This isn't a problem of partisan politics -- this is a Washington problem. It's a problem with Congress as a whole. It's an attitude problem, in fact, because those in Congress feel entitled to take this much time away from doing what they're paid to do.

In fact, I don't think I've gotten harsh enough in pointing out Congress' pathetic priorities. Consider the fact that right when the whole "spying on Americans" N.S.A. leak story hit the height of frenzy, the N.S.A. scheduled a briefing for the entire Senate. Since it was such a hot issue, it was determined that every Senator should have the opportunity to find out what is going on. Less than half of them even bothered to show up for the briefing. The reason for such poor attendance? It was scheduled for Thursday afternoon. And that interfered with plane flights home, because the Senate was planning on wrapping up their workweek at noon on Thursday.

This is a little secret that even those calendar counts doesn't reveal -- some "workdays" either happen for a few hours in the morning, or a few hours in the afternoon. Congress can gavel itself into session at noon on Tuesday, work a feverish two full workdays, and then leave to go raise some more campaign cash at noon on Thursday -- while the calendar will actually show three days worked instead of two.

Pathetic.

Congress has even shown this year how -- when it comes to not inconveniencing themselves -- they can move with lightning speed, as they did when the sequester was threatening to slightly delay their own flights back home for their regular four-day weekends. Boy, howdy, Congress moved quick to fix that particular problem, didn't they? Their quick action inspired me to write the following bit of snark when it happened:

The real message of this week is a simple one: for all the talk about how "Congress is broken" and "Congress can't do anything," the hard cold truth is that Congress is indeed capable of moving very quickly indeed -- when it wants to. Inside of one week they put a bill on President Obama's desk. That's the yardstick to measure all other legislation -- legislation which affects other Americans than "those in Congress" -- when you hear either Harry Reid or John Boehner moan about "process" or some other wonky way of describing "sitting on our fat asses and not producing legislation." Sorry guys, but when you are personally motivated, it takes one single week to pass a law. Especially when you buckle down and concentrate, without getting distracted by attending hearings on America's job crisis (and other subjects which don't affect you personally). One week. That's the standard we can now hold you to. We'll be sure to remember that.

In fact, Congress only ever moves this fast for two reasons: selfishness (avoiding their own personal inconvenience), or when even more of their vacation time is threatened. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid admittedly has quite a few drawbacks as a legislative leader, but he is an absolute master of getting bills passed the day before a vacation break. Reid announces "we won't be going on vacation until this vote is held," and the Senate panics and the obstructionism melts away like an ice pop on a July sidewalk. You'll notice that immigration reform passed right before the Independence Day break -- only the most recent manifestation of the power of threatening loss of vacation time in the Senate.

Of course, by the original schedule of the issue, immigration was slated to be done in March or April. And Harry could have kept the Senate in session until they had passed some sort of student loan fix before blowing town (the House had already passed its own version). So it's not like the last few weeks have been anything to cheer about in the Senate, really.

The reason why Congress keeps right on getting away with only working about two-thirds of the time available is that the American public either doesn't know about it or accepts it as part of Washington being Washington. Which is why I keep writing these columns, twice a year -- to remind people just how bad things have gotten, and to put it into some sort of perspective.

I've always been astonished, personally, that more people don't get upset about Congress' lackadaisical attitude towards doing what it is supposed to do to earn all those taxpayer dollars we pay them. Perhaps if the work schedule of Congress were made a political issue?

Picture the following scenario, to see how this could work. President Obama listens to the House bickering over immigration bills throughout the month of July. Towards the end, when not much has been accomplished, he starts pointing out that the current Congress is measurably worse than Harry S Truman's "Do-Nothing Congress" in terms of doing their jobs. Obama announces that not creating a commonsense immigration policy is not acceptable. He can do this without wading into the details, by focusing on the fact that the House isn't getting anything done.

Obama then announces that he will be using his constitutional power to call Congress into session whenever he wishes, and that Congress will be working right through August until they have passed something in the House and at least created a conference committee between the two houses to work out the details. Every member of Congress will be coming to work every day, until this is achieved. All those five-week-long vacation plans? They will not happen. Not until the job is done.

By doing so, Obama would shine a spotlight on Congress' dismal work record -- a record which is truly indefensible. Whining from Congresscritters about their lost vacation plans will likely fall on very deaf ears in the public at large, most of whom don't get as much paid vacation all year as Congress takes off during the August break alone.

You think that might motivate Congress to act? Republicans could moan and groan, but it's right there in the Constitution -- the president can order Congress into session whenever he feels like it. Obama's constant refrain of "not doing your job is not an option" would win out over any such complaints.

That's my guess, at any rate. Call it a summertime daydream, if you will, but at least envisioning such a scenario is better than contemplating a senator reclining on a beach, drenched by the sun, drinking mai tais, while students across the land have to wait and worry about their loan rates. Or immigrants about whether Congress will act or not this year. Or any of the thousands of other issues that are falling by the wayside as the sun slips slowly into the sea and another round of drinks is ordered by our supposed "public servants."

 

[Program Note: Sorry for the lack of a Friday Talking Points column this week, but, well, everyone was on vacation and not much happened in the American political world. Which, obviously, is what brought this rant on in the first place. FTP will return as usual next week.]

 

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