2006-05-17 / Editorials


It Would Be Nice If Congress Showed Up For Work

Watching Congress this year has put me in mind of that classmate we all had in high school who liked to wait until three days before his term paper was due to really dig into it. He usually got it done, but not in a way that made him want his parents to see it.

Our lawmakers in Washington have a lot on their plates this spring and summer. They have to deal with emergency spending bills for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and for rebuilding the Gulf Coast. They have to come up with a budget blueprint, which the House failed to do before taking off for a recess in early April, and try to get a handle on immigration reform, which the Senate likewise had to put off so its members could leave town.

They have lobbying reform, rewriting the nation's telecommunications laws, energy legislation, healthcare measures and revitalizing the nation's emergency management system- ideally, before hurricane season starts on June 1.

So how much time has Congress given itself to accomplish all this?

During the first two months of 2006, the House of Representatives spent 47 hours- that's hours, not days-in session. If it sticks to its current plans, House members will spend 97 days in Washington this year. That's down from 141 last year, and is even fewer days than the 108 that led Harry Truman to blast the "donothing" Congress of 1948.

Just for comparison, congressional scholar Norman Ornstein points out that during the 1960s and '70s, Congress averaged 323 days in session; even the lower 278-day average in the 1980s and '90s was still three-quarters time. By that standard, this Congress looks like a bunch of temp workers.

I do not want to give the impression that members of Congress don't work hard. They do-but increasingly it has been in activities other than legislating. They spend a lot of time back in the district, visiting constituents and attending to local needs. They put in untold hours on the telephone and at fundraising events, raising money for their own campaigns, for their personal PACs-designed to help them pursue or buttress positions in the leadership-and for their party's treasury. They spend weeks on the road, campaigning for their own re-election or making appearances on behalf of other candidates. And they go out on "fact-finding" missions abroad.

Many of these activities are not irrelevant to the work of a member of Congress. Yet overall our nation is not well served by the current legislative schedule. Sure, people like to joke that the less time legislators spend in Washington, the better off we are, but it's just not so.

The job of Congress is to build a consensus, both within its own halls and in the country at large, behind solutions to public policy dilemmas. This is exceedingly difficult work. It requires time, patience, research, dialogue and deliberation. It demands that members of Congress sit down with one another, try to understand one another, and grapple with one another's ideas and concerns.

You can't build a consensus without taking the time to do all this. And more important, you can't craft good legislation. As with our high-school classmate, cramming it all in at the end produces shoddy work.

It also reduces not only the effectiveness of Congress, but the legitimacy of our democracy itself. In recent years, ostensibly as a timesaving measure, Congress has become enamored of doing its work through so-called "omnibus" bills. These are huge and ungainly pieces of legislation that just happen to have the effect of stifling free inquiry and debate, and of concentrating power in the hands of a few legislative leaders.

The result is that most of the people we send to Congress have little input into what comes out of it. Moreover, the late-Tuesdayafternoon to-Thursday schedule that members of Congress now keep prevents them from discharging one of the most vital duties our Constitution gives them: carrying out robust oversight of the executive branch. It's not too much to think that a Congress that had the time and the inclination to look over the President's shoulder might have led to more judicious decision-making on everything from Abu Ghraib to domestic spying to the Dubai ports deal.

I realize that there are all sorts of forces leading members of Congress to want to spend as little time at the Capitol as possible. Their families are at home in their districts; so is their future in politics. But these are our elected representatives, and we're talking about governing the United States, not writing a term paper. Surely it's not too much to expect them to give the job enough time to get an A.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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