When Democrats take over the House next year, the regular workweek will stretch to a backbreaking five days - up from the now-customary Tuesday-through-Thursday arrangement. Members of the House and Senate - no doubt reeling from the two weeks they've worked since the election - will have a mere four weeks off after they leave town Friday. Hard to believe, but the new leadership actually expects them to come to work on Jan. 4 rather than enjoy the usual elongated holiday break as they wait around for the president to deliver his State of the Union address in late January. In the Senate, the weeklong March break is being eliminated and the two-week April vacation cut in half.
This kind of punishing schedule is enough to unite lawmakers of both parties, in both chambers, in a chorus of behind-the-scenes bipartisan grumbling. What, us work?
It would be quite a change. The 109th Congress will have been in session for a grand total of 103 days this year, which is seven days fewer than the "Do-Nothing Congress" of 1948. An ordinary full-time worker with a generous four weeks of vacation would have clocked 240 days of work during that same period.
Yes, lawmakers do work back home, and they need time to campaign and to grub for campaign cash. But it's undeniable that the time lawmakers spend in the capital, actually legislating, has been on a downward path for the past few decades. According to the American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein, the average number of days in session for a two-year Congress has dropped from 323 in the 1960s and '70s to just 250 during the first six years of the Bush presidency.
This saps lawmakers' ability to get much done. It's one explanation for why they were able to finish work on only two spending bills this year. It takes a toll, too, in less measurable ways, on congressional civility and bipartisanship. How can lawmakers forge friendships - or even learn to get along - when they're barely in town long enough to learn each other's names?
It's amazing enough that the incoming leaders are meeting private resistance from lawmakers who've gotten used to this drop-by legislating. It's even more amazing that some of them have the audacity to complain about it publicly. "Keeping us up here eats away at families," Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said. Democrats, he said, "could care less about families - that's what this says." Eats away at families? Gee, Mr. Kingston, they could move to Washington. Where, exactly, did you think the Capitol was when you ran for this job?