Congress Needs a Five-Day Workweek (Most of the Time)

Posted May 22, 2009 at 2:32pm

This Congress has been as active and productive as any I can remember. The number of major bills passed and enacted into law, the serious, sustained activity in areas of broad, complex and critical importance, all are truly impressive. The Memorial Day recess (all right, all right, District Work Period) is a well-deserved few days off.

[IMGCAP(1)]For all the impressive activity and output, it is still worth proposing one reform that I believe could truly transform Congress: the regular five-day workweek. Despite this year’s efforts, the fact is that Congress continues basically to operate on a three or three-and-one-half day week. There are usually no votes or other must-do activities on Monday or Friday and no real need to be in the Capitol or on the floor until midday on Tuesday. Members also push the leaders to get them out early enough on Thursday to catch planes back home.

The schedule and rhythms were much different when I came to Congress in 1969, and so were the interpersonal and cross-partisan relationships among Members. There was plenty of frenetic activity, and plenty of lawmakers, especially from New York, Pennsylvania and other nearby states, were proud members of the Tuesday-to-Thursday club. But there were also more sustained periods of debate and deliberation, more hearings with a sizable number of committee members in attendance, more lawmakers who stayed in Washington, D.C., two or three weeks out of four, going back home less often, more social interactions among them and more families residing in Washington and interacting with each other.

Most lawmakers want to catch those planes not just because they have political reasons to be back in the district, but because most keep their families there. There are chicken-and-egg problems sorting out causation here. The drive to go home nearly every weekend goes back probably to the huge class of 1974, when a slew of Democratic freshmen from tough districts decided that the best way to stay in the House for a second term was to campaign year-round, using such innovations as mobile district offices to build bonds in otherwise Republican areas. The ability to go home every weekend was facilitated by the vast expansion of jet travel and flights from National Airport regularly fanning out to most parts of the country.

When the class of 1994 came in, the slew of Republican freshmen not only felt the same need to secure their political bases back home as their 1974 counterparts, but also had a deep disdain, even contempt, for Washington and did not want to infect their families with a Potomac fever they viewed as more dangerous than Ebola or swine flu. So the bulk kept their families back home and spent as little time in Washington as they possibly could — many refusing even to rent apartments and sleeping on couches in their offices.

Another reason was the cost of housing — for lawmakers without a lot of capital, buying a house in Washington while maintaining a residence back home was prohibitive, especially if you were looking for a neighborhood with decent schools in some commuting proximity to the Capitol. Congressional salaries sound like a lot to most Americans, but if you are competing for housing with first-year associates at law firms who are making as much as or more than a Member of Congress, and who don’t have to pay for a second residence in another location, it is very tough and has been since the housing boom began in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Another change from the earlier era was the rise of the permanent campaign and the drive to raise money constantly, for one’s own campaign and for the team. When lawmakers are here in Washington, every spare moment is spent raising money — which often means dashing off the Capitol grounds to a safe spot to make fundraising phone calls legally. That means leaving when floor debate is going on or hearings are taking place, creating less sustained attention and more sporadic attendance.

Some of these phenomena are not going to change. Despite the subprime crash, housing prices are still high for non-rich new Members of Congress coming to town. The need to raise money is still crushing. It is still relatively easy to fly anywhere in the country for a couple of days or so, meaning the lure to go back home every weekend is great.

But there is a way to begin to tilt the process a bit back in the other direction. That is to have a three weeks on, one week off schedule that starts at 9 a.m. Monday and ends at 5 p.m. Friday afternoon, three weeks each month, with the fourth week open for lawmakers to go back to their districts or states for a more sustained period.

Over time, more Members would try to find ways to bring their families to Washington and could spend some quality time on weekends with them (now, the weekends back home are spent running from one event to another). They might have a colleague or two, with spouse, over for dinner, or see their colleagues on the sidelines of kids’ soccer or baseball games. It is much harder to demonize somebody when you know their families.

Five sustained days would mean more time for debate and less opportunity to use endgames or time pressures to threaten filibusters or to use other delaying tactics successfully. It would also mean more predictability in scheduling, where now it is often unclear when evening votes will be held, or if sessions will be extended at the last minute.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would also provide a much more generous housing allowance for lawmakers and even take over one of the House annex office buildings, convert it to apartments and/or condominiums, and rent them at cost to Members who bring their families to town. Right now, though, I would settle happily for the simple schedule change.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.