This is a rare week indeed in Washington, since it is one of those weeks when Congress actually attempts to get something done. There's a reason for this, of course, and it is the usual one: they're about to take another jaw-droppingly extensive vacation. They scurry about, in the days leading up to playtime, in an attempt to con the American people into thinking they can still get something done. It is, in fact, just about the only time any bills actually move forward -- when the threat of possibly having to cut their vacation short by a few days inspires them to action.
Think I'm being too harsh? Consider their big accomplishment so far this week: moving forward on a bill to fix the problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. A bill finally made it out of the House and is expected to pass the Senate -- right before they all disappear for an astonishing five weeks. Some might react to this news with praise that Congress actually moved to solve a problem. I'm not that impressed, personally.
The problem hit the news headlines a while back, if you'll remember. The media absolutely obsessed over the fact that veterans were having to wait an average of six weeks before getting a doctor's appointment. That, not to put too fine a point on it, happened over six weeks ago. Eric Shinseki resigned at the end of May -- two whole months ago. But that doesn't even tell half the story, because the House held hearings a full 16 weeks ago where they were made aware of the problem -- including the fact that people had died during the wait period. You can even go back to March of last year to find people testifying before Congress that wait times had gotten completely out of control. So, take your pick, it has either taken 16 weeks -- or a full 68 weeks -- for Congress to do its job.
Time and time again, the news media focuses a spotlight on something that needs doing, and rams the point home for about a week or so. Big headline news! Crisis! Congress must act! Then the media gets distracted by some other story, and nothing gets done for a very long time indeed (if ever). Remember the last cycle? The "border crisis" that required immediate action? Congress will likely be heading for the seashore for over a month, starting tomorrow, without actually tackling this problem. The House may (or may not) pass something unacceptable to Democrats, and the Senate may or may not pass anything either, but it's almost a certainty at this point that they won't both pass a compromise bill and put it on Obama's desk before heading off to bask in the sun for five straight weeks.
In American English, the phrase "banker's hours" used to mean "I only work a short amount of time, because I am so important." Maybe we need a companion phrase to describe the overly-generous vacation schedule our lawmakers allow themselves each and every year: the "congressional workweek."
So far this year -- from the beginning of January through tomorrow (the last scheduled work day until September) -- the House of Representatives has worked 107 days and the Senate has worked 106 days. That is out of a total of 152 weekdays on the calendar. To be fair, we'll subtract the five federal holidays that have already happened this year, to come up with a possible 147 working days. What this means is that Congress has worked under 73 percent of the possible days it could have. That's worse than even "three days out of four," folks. Stated as a portion of a 40-hour workweek, the House has worked an average (per week) of 29.1 hours and the Senate 28.8 hours.
That is, in a word, pathetic. But it gets even worse.
If you calculate out to when they plan on returning to doing their jobs (adding on five weeks of scheduled vacation, in other words), the House will work 107 days out of the first 172 workdays of the year, and the Senate only 106 days. Put another way, out of over 34 workweeks on the calendar, Congress will actually work less than 22 of them. This lowers their percentage to roughly 62 percent each, which is pretty dismal. Again, out of the 40-hour workweek most full-time employees are expected to put in, Congress instead worked less than 25 hours (24.9 House and 24.6 Senate). Out of every two weeks, Congress shows up for a little more than six days of actual work.
So you'll have to forgive me if I'm not joining in the praise for Congress actually passing a few bills this particular week. The problems at the V.A. are going to be solved? Hey, that's great -- it only took them 68 weeks to do so! It's only been four months since Congress was told people are dying in waiting lines! Hey, wow -- they took care of the problem only two months after the top guy resigned! At this pace, we can expect the border crisis to be addressed long about October or so -- whoops, maybe not... since there will doubtlessly be another big chunk of time right about then where Congress decides to go off and campaign rather than do their jobs (it is, after all, an election year).
So while I do appreciate that Congress is actually doing a few things this week, I cannot in any way say I'm impressed by this tiny burst of energy. The only real reason action in Congress is even news this week is because they spend so much time they're supposed to be working either by doing absolutely nothing (when they're in town) or by doing absolutely nothing (on one of their many, many vacation weeks). This is supposed to be impressive? I think not.
Now, I try to only write articles pointing this fact out once or twice each year, since it's not exactly news within the Beltway. But, as always, I am simply astounded that regular Americans don't demand more from the people who represent them. If you were an employee, would you give full-time pay and benefits to someone who showed up to work only 25 hours a week? Well, "we the people" are supposed to be the ultimate employers of Congress. So where's the outrage? At the very least, we should demand that all American employees get their own five-week vacation. Maybe that would shame Congress into cutting back on its leisure time a bit, who knows? If Congress passed a mandatory five-week paid summer vacation for all American workers, that would get me to applaud, loud and long. But I'm not exactly holding my breath waiting for it to happen, if you know what I mean.
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