Our non-working Congress

Congress is such an overpowering presence in Washington that it was bound to attract notice that the lawmakers aren’t around the capital all that much.

Two who did notice were political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Kathy Kiely of USA Today, who documented their absence, especially in the House.

Congress, just back from its Presidents Day recess, is now taking a weeklong St. Patrick’s break. And the House, which plans to take off two weeks in April, one week each in May and July, and all of August, and then knock off early to go home and campaign for the midterm elections, is on schedule to be in session 97 days. Votes are scheduled on 71 of those days, but, as Ornstein notes, on 26 days no votes are scheduled earlier than 6:30 p.m., meaning the members can arrive back late in the day Monday and even Tuesday.

Kiely notes that the House has been in session only 19 days so far this year (versus 33 for the Senate), including one marathon five-minute session on March 6. She observes that even Harry Truman’s “do-nothing” Congress of 1948 met for 108 days.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Congress was in session an average of 323 days. Ornstein reckons that the likely average during the Bush presidency will be 250 days.

And there is another worrisome figure. It is said that Congress at work is Congress in committee. In the ’60s and ’70s, Ornstein found, each Congress had an average of 5,372 committee and subcommittee meetings. In the last Congress, it was 2,135.

The committees are where the real work is done _ hearings, drafting of legislation, investigations and the all-important oversight.

The absent lawmakers are not _ at least generally _ idling on a luxury golf course somewhere, despite the impression the lobbying scandals left. The Tuesday-through-Thursday workweek is so they can campaign and raise money.

The flip observation has always been that the less often the lawmakers are in Washington the less damage they can do. But the opposite is more likely true.

In a recent commentary, Ornstein wrote, “A part-time Congress in a country with a $13 trillion economy and a 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.”

And another point. The lawmakers learn to work together by being together. Much of the partisanship and hostility that pervades Congress can probably be laid to the fact that many of them are, quite literally, strangers to each other.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.