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A Simple Fix to Congress’ ‘Calendaring Catastrophe’

Ever tried to be in two places at once? Members of Congress do it every day. According to one Capitol Hill newspaper, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA-6) recently joked that he has “three clones that help him navigate overbooked scheduling.”

But Congress doesn’t need clones to solve this problem. Just computers.

It’s no secret that members of Congress have unreasonable demands on their time, the most egregious of which are too often a result of a poorly planned committee schedule. In the House, members serve on an average of 5.3 committees and subcommittees, yet there is no mechanism in place to avoid conflicts in their committee obligations.

As a result, lawmakers are often expected to be at several committee hearings at once, leading to impossible demands on members’ time and attention. Often, they attend each hearing only long enough to make a statement and, perhaps, ask a brief question—leaving almost as soon as they arrive. When this happens, the whole purpose of committee hearings (to educate lawmakers on often complex issues) is missed entirely.

But what if there was one, simple change that could vastly improve Congress’ lawmaking abilities? Luckily, there is – and it doesn’t involve cloning our representatives. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH-13) said that, “There’s got to be some way to figure out some algorithm with everybody’s committees and then let a computer figure this out.”

There is. Congress can use data analytics to implement an optimized block committee schedule.

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What the data shows:

BPC is the first to conduct a comprehensive analysis of congressional scheduling conflicts, and what we found is alarming. On average, there are about 10,000 scheduling conflicts per Congress.1 That translates to an average of 40.2 conflicts for every day that committee hearings occur.

Total Scheduling Conflicts by Congress and Session

Conflicts in First Session Conflicts in Second Session
113th Congress 5388 4752
114th Congress 6921 4954
115th Congress 4826 4195
116th Congress 7101 --

In the first session of this Congress alone, there have been just over 7,100 conflicts in members’ committee schedules. Ironically, the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections had the highest frequency of scheduling conflicts during the 116th Congress. Across all of this subcommittee’s hearings, an average of 75% of members had at least one other committee meeting scheduled at the same time. When looking only at the general committee level, the Committee on the Budget had the highest average proportion of members with conflicts, with 59% of its members experiencing at least one scheduling conflict across all hearings.

Roughly 39% of members at each committee hearing had a scheduling conflict in the 116th Congress. Making matters worse, during at least three committee hearings in the 116th Congress, every single member had a scheduling conflict2. If that doesn’t affect legislative productivity, it’s difficult to imagine what does.

Average Proportion of Members at Each Hearing with Scheduling Conflicts

Average Proportion of Members
113th Congress 36.80 %
114th Congress 39.90 %
115th Congress 36.70 %
116th Congress 38.70 %

Fixing the congressional schedule: Block committee schedules.

The first step of effective lawmaking is understanding the problems facing the country. Committee hearings are a crucial part of this endeavor, and members should rarely have to choose which hearing to attend because of a scheduling issue.

What can be done to make Congress’ schedule more efficient and effective? This is where BPC’s novel scheduling research becomes helpful.

Last October, BPC recommended that Congress set specific days and times during which only specified committees can meet. This block scheduling approach is currently being used by several state legislatures across the country, which classify all committees as either “A”, “B”, or “C” and assign windows of time during which each block can hold hearings. The House of Representatives should follow in their footsteps. But rather than assign committees to blocks randomly, Congress can take its scheduling reform efforts one step further by using an optimization model to efficiently distribute committees among scheduling blocks. We did it to show them how.

To demonstrate the usefulness this approach, BPC created a Generalized Reduced Gradient (GRG) Nonlinear model that considers both overlap in committee memberships and the average number of times each committee meets per Congress. Based on membership and hearing frequency, this model identifies the ideal distribution of committees between scheduling blocks that would best reduce conflicts – and the results are astounding.

Implementing an optimized, block committee schedule could reduce scheduling conflicts in Congress by 86%.

Optimal Distribution of House Committees

Note: The block assignment of the committees in italics above has a negligible impact on the projected total number of scheduling conflicts.

Block ABlock BBlock C
Committee on AgricultureCommittee on AppropriationsCommittee on Armed Services
Committee on the BudgetCommittee on Education and the WorkforceCommittee on Foreign Affairs
Committee on EthicsCommittee on Energy and CommerceCommittee on Oversight and Government Reform
Committee on Homeland SecurityCommittee on Financial ServicesCommittee on Rules
Committee on House AdministrationCommittee on the JudiciaryCommittee on Veterans' Affairs
Committee on Natural ResourcesCommittee on Transportation and InfrastructureSelect Committee on the Climate Crisis
Committee on Science, Space, and TechnologyCommittee on Ways and MeansSelect Committee on the Modernization of Congress
Committee on Small BusinessJoint Committee on the LibraryJoint Committee on Printing
Permanent Select Committee on IntelligenceJoint Committee on TaxationJoint Economic Committee

The American public deserves better than to have their representatives’ attentions spread too thin to seriously consider the issues before them. And, frankly, members of our nation’s principal legislative body deserve better, too.

Reforming the congressional schedule is a small change with big implications for Congress and the nation at large. Congress needs to take a hard look in the mirror and realize that it doesn’t have the time not to address its calendaring catastrophe.

This blog was revised on May 27th, 2020 to reflect an updated counting method that better accounts for rescheduled committee hearings and overlapping scheduling conflicts. The full dataset including all instances of scheduling conflicts, as well as links to the relevant hearings, can be downloaded from BPC’s website by following this link.

End Notes:

1 Scheduling conflicts are operationalized as any instance of overlap within a member’s committee schedule. For instance, if a member was scheduled for a hearing from 10:00 A.M. to 12:00 P.M. and from 11:45 AM to 1:45 PM, this would count as a conflict. If a Member was expected to be at more than two hearings at the same time, each conflict is counted separately.
2 Every single member had a scheduling conflict for a total of 61 hearings across the 113th through the 116th Congress.
3 Historical committee data from the 113th through the 116th Congress was included in this analysis.

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