Congressional calendar on par despite legislative inactivity

Despite intense criticism of Congress for its lack of productivity, the House and Senate have been in session a normal amount of days compared to prior election years.

Congress’s popularity hovers around 17 percent due, in part, to legislative gridlock and inaction. And members themselves have bemoaned the month-long recess taken in the midst of unfinished work.

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While the gridlock isn’t due to a lack of days put into the job, experts say days in session can be a poor measure of legislative productivity.

“If you then look at the pathetic outputs in terms of consequential legislation, you can see why this really is, at least so far, a truly a do-nothing Congress,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Both the GOP-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate have logged 102 and 101 days, respectively, in session before the August recess, which is on par with previous even-numbered years. In election years going back until 1978, the Senate averages 103 days before the August recess, and the House averages 91.

Ornstein said the number of pro forma sessions this year can skew the results and said that hours spent in session this year have dropped significantly.

The Senate has spent about one less hour a day in session on average than in years past. The House is down about one and a half hours per day. That adds up to a deficit of 100 hours in the Senate and 150 hours in the House.

Sarah Binder, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said that split party control, rather than time spent in session, may determine the ability to get legislation passed.

“We could easily imagine a Congress that spends a lot of time in session, and then uses that time to produce a landmark number of legislative agreements,” Binder said. “But we could also easily imagine a Congress that spends a lot of time in session, but mostly spends it spinning its wheels.”

In fact, The House and Senate were in session more than 170 days last year, relatively high for both chambers. But the Washington Times analysis found it to be the least productive in history.

Throughout a whole year, the Senate averages 146 days in session and the House tallies a more modest 128 in election years.

The House is in reach of that number while the Senate may fall short. There are eight legislative days scheduled between now and the election. And the lame-duck session will be filled with a fight to extend Bush-era tax cuts and an attempt to avert sequestration. In 2010, the lame-duck session totaled 29 days in the Senate and 19 days in the House.

Though both chambers have logged an average number of days in session, a vote to adjourn for the August recess showed that members are concerned with the perception of an inactive Congress three months before the election.

All House Democrats and 78 Republicans voted this month to bypass the month-long recess and not to adjourn in a largely symbolic vote.

“The Republican majority is prepared to adjourn the House of Representatives to leave for the August district work period without accomplishing what the American people have sent us here to do,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.

The following week, with most members out of town, the House voted to adjourn by unanimous consent.

The vote against adjournment was aimed to score political points, said Brian Darling, a senior fellow of government studies at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation.

“It is a good vote to take when you are voting not to recess as a protest vote to the fact that Congress isn’t doing much,” Darling said.

However, Darling said an extra month of legislating likely wouldn’t produce any more results.

Many congressional experts note that big-ticket items, such as extending the Bush tax rates and dealing with pending defense cuts, won’t be addressed until after voters have spoken on Nov. 6.

Darling said both chambers waste a lot of time when they are in session.

The House usually takes about a dozen non-controversial suspension votes and votes on large pieces of legislation it knows won’t be taken up in the Senate, he said. Meanwhile, quorum calls take up the majority of the time in the Senate, Darling added.

Darling recommended an even lighter schedule.

“Maybe they should just stay home and come in one week out of every month and try and do what little work they do a little quicker,” Darling said.

Record lows in the Senate came in 1992 with 129 days in session, when both houses were controlled by Democrats. In the House, the low came in 2006 with 101 days in session, when Republicans controlled both chambers and The White House.