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Congress’ Ticking Time Bomb (and How to Fix It)

“You can’t run a superpower on Wednesdays alone,” former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has said. Yet, that’s exactly what Congress tries to do. Not surprisingly, the institution regularly comes close to missing critical deadlines. And members themselves complain they don’t have enough time to get their work done. Congress needs to seriously rethink how much time it spends in Washington and how members spend their time there.

Seeking to address public concerns that Congress is a disorganized and inefficient body, the House of Representatives created the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress to envision ways that it can be more “ethical, transparent, unifying, and responsive.” The committee should focus on two scheduling areas to make Congress more efficient:

  1. Balancing time spent between Washington and members’ districts
  2. Maximizing the use of members’ time in Washington
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Problem 1: Congressmembers spend too much time away from Washington

Members of Congress spend too much time out of Washington to conduct the in-depth and time-consuming work that is necessary for legislative productivity. Much of the day-to-day legislative work of Congress takes place in the nation’s capital, but members’ legitimate desire to interact with constituents back home, campaign and reelection considerations, and the public’s negative perceptions of the capital as a “swamp” create disincentives for staying in Washington for the time frames that are essential to truly fulfill their legislative responsibilities.

BPC’s Commission on Political Reform—whose members included several former members of Congress—identified this problem. It said:

“From a practical standpoint, by traveling home every weekend and fundraising during most free moments while in session in Washington, members are insulated from personal contacts with those of the other party.”

Congress, often arriving in Washington on Tuesdays and leaving late on Thursdays, rarely has more than one full legislative day on the calendar in a week. The nation’s foremost legislative body deserves more attention from its members than it currently receives.

Recommendations for better balancing time spent between home districts and Washington:

In 2014, BPC recommended that Congress be in session conducting legislative business five days a week, for three straight weeks, followed by one week in recess.

Including a month-long August recess, adhering to this five-day workweek would require that the House and Senate should each work at least 330 days per Congress. Yet, the House, on average, worked just 245 days between the 110th and 115th Congresses.

BPC regularly tracks the current Congress’s number of working days and other metrics through the Healthy Congress Index.

An alternative approach for Congress to make the schedule more consistent and predictable would be to spend two weeks in Washington followed by two weeks in members’ districts.

Problem 2: Scheduling conflicts cause the time members of Congress are in Washington to be spent inefficiently

Even when members of Congress are in the Capitol, their daily schedules are hectic. Representatives and their staff are pulled in multiple directions by office duties, committee responsibilities, party and caucus commitments, meetings with constituents from home, and fundraising activities, just to name a few.

Members’ committee duties are particularly impacted by such disorganization.  Currently, the House has no system for avoiding conflicts between committee meetings. Since many members serve on more than one committee, they regularly duck in and out of multiple hearings, spending just enough time in each to make a statement and ask a question or two. Consequently, lawmakers are rarely able to listen to the problems or priorities of one another’s constituents, let alone take away meaningful knowledge.

The below figure highlights just how many conflicts members of Congress face on any given day:

Options for optimizing congressmembers’ daily schedules:

  • Assign certain days of the week on which only specified committees may meet.
  • Designate certain days of the week for committee activity and certain days for floor activity to better divide the time committed to each.
  • Dedicate one entire week to committee activities followed by one entire week dedicated to floor activities.
  • Reduce the number of committee assignments permitted for each member.

Currently, House rules limit members to service on no more than two standing committees and four subcommittees of the standing committees, but this can be and is waived. The committee could consider increasing the threshold for waiving that rule.

  • Combination of the above options.

Some of the above options may be implemented in combination. For instance, a system such as is called for in Option 1 would be well complemented by Option 2 or Option 3. Additionally, Option 4 may be implemented in combination with any of the other options.

While congressmembers are short on time, there is no shortage of ways Congress can remedy the chaos that is congressional scheduling. The Modernization Committee, which has held a hearing on this topic, can bring order and efficiency to the chaos by better balancing the time members commit between their home districts and Washington and ensuring that time spent in Washington is time well spent.

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