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Empty calendar: Is Congress working?

The U.S. House of Representatives chamber is seen December 8, 2008 in Washington, DC. Members of the media were allowed access to film and photograph the room for the first time in six years.
The U.S. House of Representatives chamber is seen December 8, 2008 in Washington, DC. Members of the media were allowed access to film and photograph the room for the first time in six years.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

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Time is running out for Congress to get anything done this year. The House of Representatives returns to work Tuesday night to begin the last 15 work days on Capitol Hill in 2013. Next year’s Congressional calendar is quite thin – just over a hundred days. What the heck Congress is doing?

If you look at the 2014 calendar for the House of Representatives, released by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, you’ll see a lot of white space. Two weeks on, one week off - a week known officially as a district work period. The entire month of August and most of October are completely empty. If you add it up, there are just 113 DC work days for the entire year.

Raymond Smock, who heads the Robert Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University in West Virginia, says this Congress, "is on track to be the lowest production Congress ever."

He also says there’s not enough time in the calendar for the full workload of Congress. "Most hearings are a couple of days of window dressing and not in depth investigative matters that Congress is supposed to do as part of its oversight of the executive branch of government."

By his reckoning, Smock says Congress won’t pass even 150 bills this session, compared to the usual thousand bills a year approved each session since Kennedy was president.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office had no comment on the calendar or the House work schedule, but in a statement accompanying the calendar online, he says the calendar creates, “certainty, increased efficiency and productivity.”

John Lawrence, former chief of staff to Democrat Nancy Pelosi when she was House Speaker, says the schedule also fits the GOP agenda. He cites Speaker Boehner's statement that Congress shouldn't be "judged on how many  new laws we create; we ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal."

Lawrence says the GOP objective was, "not to pass a heavy legislative agenda, it was to keep government from growing, it was to pare back spending, reduce the deficit. In fact that’s pretty much what’s happening by inaction."

The calendar was the result of Speaker Boehner's survey of House members, who complained about the unpredictability of the old schedule. 

John Lawrence admits the calendar is popular, again using the same term: predictability. He says constituents have a high expectation that members are going to be available to them in the district.

"This way you know you’re going to be there a certain week, you can really do some planning ahead as opposed to dashing in there and having to cram everything into a Friday because you have to be back on Monday afternoon."

That dashing about from coast to coast for weekends in the district only became possible in the jet age. Congress never worked year round, particularly in the 18th and 19th century.

Matt Wasniewski, the Historian of the House of Representatives says the desire was to be in session "after the crops had been harvested and to be back home when the new crops were going in the ground." He says the concept of a full time Congress evolved as the country turned to Washington for answers to big issues.

"The federal government in the early 20th century begins to play a greater role in the everyday life of Americans, particularly with the twin crises of the Great Depression and World War Two," said Wasniewski. 

That greater role meant passing more bills and spending more time in Washington. So, for example in the war year of 1943, Congress met for 187 days – 74 days more than Congress will meet next year.

Brad Fitch heads up the non-partisan Congressional Management Foundation. It  offers training and research to improve the way  Congressional offices work. He says you can’t judge the quality of the work by the calendar.

"Research shows that when they’re in Washington," he says, "their average work week is 70 hours a week; when they’re back home, they’re average work week is 59 hours a week."

Two years ago, the Foundation worked with the Society of Human Resource Management to survey Congress on its work habits. The 25 members surveyed say they spend more than a third of their time in DC working on legislative or policy issues. Fundraising and constituent services tied at 17 percent of their time. 

Back home, Fitch says, "32 percent of the time members report they’re doing constituent services work, followed by political or campaign work." A close third is media and public relations work because "that’s what members do, they gotta get seen when they’re back in the district."

Even though most lawmakers have been out of town since the day before Halloween, Fitch says two dozen members of the budget conference committee have been meeting to try to hammer out a compromise that their colleagues will vote on when they return to Capitol Hill. 

Congressional Calendar