Congress out of session does not mean Congress isn’t working

The Fix blog at the Washington Post has an article arguing that since 1978, Congress has only worked a full week 14% of the time. This is a common—and extraordinarily misleading-- jab at Congress. While it is an easy to criticize an institution that frequently makes itself an easy target, it’s a disservice that unnecessarily undermines trust in government. First, it oversimplifies lawmakers’ jobs. Members of Congress have two jobs: represent their constituents and govern. These responsibilities do not always go hand in hand. Representing constituents means speaking with them in person, holding town hall meetings, organizing rallies, attending to casework, and otherwise being present in the district or state they represent. This is not easily done from a Washington office. Supporting or opposing legislation is an important part of a members’ job. However, it does not come close to capturing members’ range of responsibilities. This is why even when Congress is out of session, members are at work. Most members of Congress work a 5-6 day week. The representative aspect of Congress’s job is almost completely ignored in these statistics.

Second, the chambers rarely work in concert. The article concludes on this note: “It is hard to escape the implications of Friday being the weekday on which the House and Senate are least commonly in session.” Actually, both chambers do not need to be in session at the same time. It is not a requirement to legislate nor are the chambers routinely working on the same issues.

The House and Senate are independent, uncoordinated bodies. They work on different issues at different times and most often do not coordinate their schedules. For example, last Thursday (September 18th) the Senate passed 19 bills on its final work day of the week. Among the bills it passed were the Debbie Smith Reauthorization Act (H.R. 4323), Paul D. Wellstone Muscular Dystrophy Amendments (H.R. 594), and the Prevent Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (H.R. 4980). Those bills passed the House on April 7th, July 28th, and July 23rd, respectively. The House did not need to be in session for those bills to pass the Senate, then go to the President. The only time the two chambers need to be in session at the same time is if there is a pending deadline Congress needs to meet (e.g. the debt ceiling, avoiding government shutdown, etc). Otherwise, being in Washington at the same time is not a prerequisite to enacting laws.

Lastly, there is no evidence to suggest more legislative days leads to more legislation. The 111th Congress was in session fewer days than the 112th Congress. Having fewer legislative days did not prevent the 111th Congress from being among the most successful in congressional history while the 112th Congress was the least productive since the Civil War. Similarly, the Senate has often worked more days than the House. However, the Senate routinely passes fewer bills than the lower chamber. It is in session longer because its legislative process requires more time for bills and motions to move through the legislative process.

Congress has a lot of problems. Being in session at the same time or having longer work weeks isn't one of them. The 113th Congress has been extraordinarily unproductive, but fewer days in session have little to do with that.