Families take a back seat for members

Lawmakers put in 14-hour work days at a significant cost to their personal lives, according to a new study from the Congressional Management Foundation that indicates a disconnect between the way House members work and how they are viewed by the public.

The study released Tuesday, titled “Life in Congress: The Member Perspective” and conducted jointly with the Society for Human Resource Management, is the first of its kind to document lawmakers’ professional lives — from how many hours they work to how that breaks down by task.

It casts members of the House as dedicated public servants who sacrifice time with their families to work long hours for their constituents — a sharp contrast to a public view shaped by other studies and focus groups that shows lawmakers are seen as living lavish lives and working the social circuit.

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“The picture of Congress as dedicated public services is not popularly portrayed,” but average members “clearly have a strong sense of public service,” said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.

Given Congress’s dismal approval rating — it hit a record low of 10 percent in 2012 — Fitch said the study showed there was a high disparity between lawmakers’ jobs and constituents’ perception of their work.

“It does raise the question that if you have a workforce that is spending incredibly long hours and feeling dedicated about their job and yet their work product is not viewed by their employers — i.e., their constituents — as satisfactory, what does that say about the institution? We don’t have the answers there, but we think that is an interesting question that could be raised,” he said.

The results are based on questionnaires of 25 members of the House; freshmen and members of the leadership were excluded. The study did not include the Senate.

Fitch said the group wanted to look at “typical members,” and not high-profile ones. 

He said former Rep. Bob Ney, the Ohio Republican who served time in prison after trading political favors for gifts — including trips to the Super Bowl, a golf outing in Scotland and the use of luxury boxes at sporting events —was not the type of lawmaker they wanted to survey.

“People think that’s a typical member and it’s not. That’s the atypical member,” he said.

The study found lawmakers work 70 hours a week when the House in session and 59 hours when it’s not in session. Lawmakers typically begin their day at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. and finish at 8 p.m. or later — and then have work-related reading at home to prepare for the next day.

Despite the long hours, a majority of the lawmakers — 84 percent — said feeling as if they were “performing an important public service” was a very important aspect of their jobs.

 The survey found that being a lawmaker was comparable to other high-demand jobs such as airline pilots, firefighters and physicians, with the costs of all of the professions being high burn-out rates and trading away one’s personal life.

Eighty-six percent of lawmakers said they spend too little time with loved ones, and 66 percent said they missed a “major family-related event” in the past year because of their job.

However, 83 percent said their families supported their work.

“I think what suffers to some extent is that, as visible and as out there as we are, there’s a level of isolation too from folks — friends, family, that circle of people who helped us get where we’re at,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a six-term lawmaker who participated in the survey.

“At the start of every session I say I’m going to set a day aside just for family and friends,” he said, adding “I’ve been doing it for 10 years now — the start of every year — and it goes pretty good for about three months and then it starts falling apart.”

Breaking down their work week, lawmakers said they spend the most time — 35 percent — on legislative and policy work. They spent 17 percent each on constituent services and on campaign work. About 9 percent each is spent on media relations and with family/friends. Lawmakers estimate they only get 6 percent personal time.

Fitch noted the amount of time on political activity sounded low, so they made follow-up questions to chiefs of staff, who handle the lawmakers’ time.

“When they actually did the math ... they said ‘That’s right, I’m lucky if I can get my boss to do five hours of call time.’ The way it works on Capitol Hill is that it’s the chief of staff who’s always saying ‘You’ve got to go down to party headquarters and do your call time,’ ” he said.

Grijalva agreed, saying if you looked at the overall campaign time in a lawmaker’s term, it made sense.

“If you combine that time, yeah, it’s about 20 percent of the full time. It’s concentrated, though,” he noted.

When it came to their work, lawmakers said their constituents were more important than party leaders.

The study found that 95 percent of lawmakers said their biggest responsibility is “staying in touch with constituents,” while 37 percent said it was important to have good relations with fellow party members and 32 percent said it was important to have a good relationship with leadership.

Citing the study’s sample size, Fitch said the Congressional Management Foundation added to their data with follow-up research.

“Because of the small sample size, we augmented that by doing interviews, we did focus groups,” he said.

The survey consisted of 25 lawmakers in the 112th Congress. It included 52 percent Democrats and 48 percent Republicans, with the average respondent being 58 years old and serving in their fifth term. Of the lawmakers, 16 percent were female and 84 percent were male. It was conducted Aug. 4 through Oct. 31 in 2011.

— This story was updated at 9:53 a.m.