Smaller government? New Congress spends little time in session

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 4, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Nice work if you can get it.

The Senate was in session for five days last month. The House of Representatives was officially present for 11.

But not really.

The House halted business the week after the Jan. 8 shootings in Tucson out of respect for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was critically wounded while meeting with her constituents.

Still, what's with the lemonade-and-porch-swing pace?

During the first month of the last Congress, in 2009 the House met for 15 days and the Senate for 18. At the start of the one before that, the House was in town for 16 days and the Senate for 17.

Didn't November's election mean that Congress was supposed to roll up its sleeves and start fixing things?

"Symbolically, it doesn't look good," said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

The House chamber was empty this week as well. It's part of a revamped calendar from the new Republican leadership that guarantees members at least one work week at home in their districts each month, among other changes.

"This time will be used to listen to constituents," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said in a letter to all House members after the midterm elections. "The results of these reforms should be a U.S. House of Representatives that more accurately reflects the Founders' intent . . . 'direct and constant control by the citizens.'"

If it keeps them out of Washington more often, all the better, one critic said.

"The less time they are there, the less damage to this country they can do towards growing government, increasing taxes and finding more ways to redistribute my wealth," said Daryl Bowles, of the Cooper County Tea Party in Boonville, Mo.

But at least one new Republican lawmaker complained that the House isn't meeting often enough.

"I promised my constituents I would go to Capitol Hill and work every day to solve . . . problems," Rep. Allen West of Florida wrote in a letter to Cantor.

When the House met last month, Republicans voted to repeal the health care law, a campaign promise. It was a party-line vote with no impact beyond sending a political message, because the Democratic-majority Senate voted this week against repeal.

After another party-line vote to end taxpayer-financing of presidential campaigns, House members packed up for home.

The Senate had already put the Capitol in its rear-view mirror.

It did a U-turn for home right after the Jan. 5 swearing-in of the new Congress. Senators found their way back for three days at the end of the month when they changed Senate rules to provide more transparency.

"It is important to legislate in Washington, and it is equally important to be home in your states finding out what is on voters' minds," said Senate Democratic leadership spokesman Brian Fallon. "You cannot do one without the other, and we will continue to give equal focus to both."

Hill watchers say that the first month of a new Congress usually isn't a good barometer of its work habits. Too many things compete for attention, such as party leadership elections, committee reorganizations and the president's State of the Union address.

"Congress has two functions: One is representation, the other is lawmaking," said Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a former congressional aide. "You can't represent constituents well if you're sitting on the floor of the Senate. You have to actually be out visiting people."

However, the country faces a lot of problems, he added, and "it's frustrating when it takes so long for a new Congress to get under way."

During the Senate's January break, some members went to Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., toured tornado damage in his state, visited military bases and spoke to high school students.

Freshman Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., spent this past week holding a series of meetings with local chambers of commerce and school district officials.

"Maybe it's our fault, but the late night comedians always refer to the time that we are in the district as that we're off on vacation, like we're watching soap operas and eating bonbons," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. "You hear members quite often say, 'I'll be glad when the district work week is over so I can get back to Washington and rest.'"

Lawmakers rarely work a full five-day week in Washington. They usually come to the Capitol on Tuesday and bolt to the airport after the last votes on Thursday.

Many then spend the weekend running nonstop between events with constituents, civic leaders and campaign donors.

They're paid for their trouble: $174,000 a year. Yes, they have to keep up two homes, although a few spartan souls live out of their offices. But nobody forces them to run.

Polls show that only about 25 percent of the public gives Congress high marks. But its image problem started long before now.

Back in Congress' early days, when lawmakers earned $6 for each day they were in session, "the complaint was they were staying for too long to get more money," said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie. "To get around that, they went to an annual salary."

Then the complaint was that they're not staying long enough.

"Quite frankly, they're criticized whether they're here or not."

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