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Modernization panel mulls overhaul of congressional calendar

Members weigh time in districts vs. in the District

Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, suggested having the House in two for two full weeks, then away for two weeks.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, suggested having the House in two for two full weeks, then away for two weeks.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Members of a panel to modernize Congress are floating proposals to overhaul the legislative calendar, including an option of being in session for two full work weeks and then recessing for a fortnight of district work time.

Reps. William R. Timmons IV, a South Carolina Republican, and Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, both suggested such an option Wednesday during a hearing of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a temporary panel tasked with offering recommendations to update Capitol Hill technology and to improve working conditions for lawmakers and staff.  

Lawmakers acknowledged that noodling with the congressional schedule was contentious work, even as most members say they want more certainty in their days, fewer conflicts between committee assignments and less time wasted traveling between their districts and Washington, D.C.

[Some lawmakers question amount of time spent in committees]

“There is no perfect calendar and no schedule that will please everyone,” said Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer, who chairs the panel. “What we all share, though, is a desire for more predictability and more efficiency so that Congress as an institution is better able to solve problems on behalf of the American people.”  

Kyle Nevins, who was a deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, testified about his efforts to overhaul the calendar in 2012 with essentially a two-week period in session in Washington alternating with a week in the districts. He said his Virginia Republican boss’s office sought to avoid late-night votes because such sessions had led to physical and verbal altercations among members.

Nevins, now a lobbyist with Harbinger Strategies, also endorsed the idea of five-day work weeks. Currently, House members typically arrive in the Capitol for Monday evening votes, work full days on Tuesday and Wednesday, then usually leave on Thursday or Friday.  

Pennsylvania Democrat. Mary Gay Scanlon said she wanted the committee to consider Congress’ changing demographics, such as the number of members with families, when proposing scheduling changes.

Timmons said his proposed calendar recommendations — two weeks in D.C., two weeks back home — would minimize travel for members and could offer them an incentive to remain in Washington for the weekend between the two full work weeks. That could potentially lead to more social interactions among lawmakers, including across the aisle, he said.

Nevins cautioned the panel, however, that more weeks in “recess” may subject lawmakers to ridicule from the press, and potentially voters, for taking excessive vacations.

The Timmons concept, though, would actually increase the number of full legislative days on the calendar to 105 and reduce fly-in and fly-out days, or days lawmakers travel between Washington and their districts, to 24. This year’s calendar includes 66 full legislative days and 65 fly-in and fly-out days.

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