House and Senate: Who works less?

Greg Nash

The House and Senate seem to be competing for a dubious prize as the midterm elections approach: Who can work less?

Like a divorced couple, the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate rarely seem to be in the same place at the same time. Senators returned to Washington this week from a weeklong recess only to find their lower chamber colleagues had already skipped town after a holiday-shortened, two-day workweek of their own.

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Each chamber makes its own schedule, and in recent years they’ve often been on different pages. That’s led to complaints from some lawmakers that it hinders bicameral negotiations because the D.C. schedules of House and Senate lawmakers are so difficult to coordinate.

“In the 21st century, two legislative bodies can’t coordinate their schedules so that we’re actually working in tandem? That’s just, to me, absurd,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly.

The Northern Virginia Democrat said the lack of coordination between the House and the Senate on a matter as mundane as their legislative schedules was “another sign of the dysfunction of the institution right now.”

Aside from last-minute fiscal and tax deals brokered by party leadership, bipartisan accords between the House and Senate have been rare the last three years. And when they do occur, they usually do not result from formal House-Senate conference committees, Senate historian Donald Ritchie noted.

“The work that they do doesn’t have to be done at the same time, necessarily,” Ritchie said of the two chambers. “There isn’t a lot of reason for them to be in session at the same time.”

When lawmakers announced a recent bicameral breakthrough on a job training bill, for example, the members noted that much of the work was done by staff who stay in Washington while their bosses are back in their districts.

For decades, Congress has taken more frequent breaks during election years so lawmakers have more time to campaign back home, and this year is no different. Through the end of May, the House had been in session for just 57 days, according to the official calendar posted by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Weeks are typically compressed into two or three full days, with the first votes of the week not occurring until Monday or Tuesday evening and last votes coming by noon on Friday, if not earlier.

The House will have a busy schedule over the next two months, working in the Capitol for seven of eight weeks beginning June 9. But after the end of July, the House is scheduled to be session just 27 days until the end of 2014. Lawmakers will return to their districts for their regular August recess and for all but two days in October — the month before they face voters.

The Senate’s official calendar lists more days, but in practice, senators are out of town as much or more often than their House colleagues. Despite occasional threats, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rarely schedules votes on Fridays, and many days when the Senate is technically meeting, it is in merely pro forma sessions.

That could change next year, if Republicans retake the Senate and Mitch McConnell (Ky.) becomes majority leader. In a floor speech in January, McConnell bemoaned the Senate’s frequently short weeks in Washington and pledged to keep senators in the town longer to foster more bipartisan work.

“We have to learn how to put in a decent week’s work on the floor again, because another thing we’ve lost around here is an appreciation for the power of the clock to force consensus,” McConnell said. “The only way 100 senators will truly be able to have their say, the only way we’ll be able to work through our tensions and disputes, is if we’re here more.”

Of course, pledges from the minority party are common, but the recent record of keeping those promises is inconsistent at best.

House Democrats kept long hours in the initial years of their majority in 2007-2009 only to tail off as their electoral prospects sank in 2010. And the House GOP majority has occasionally waived its rule requiring legislation to be posted publicly on three calendar days before a vote.

Yet House Republican leaders have largely stayed true to their promise to make the floor calendar more consistent and predictable, making it easier for lawmakers to schedule meetings and hearings and for those from far-flung districts to book their flights to and from Washington. There are fewer last-minute changes under the GOP majority, and votes are less likely to occur late at night.

Cantor has also sought to schedule recesses — or “district work periods” in the congressional vernacular — once every three weeks when possible. That has allowed members more regular time back home, but has also led to complaints that it stymies progress on legislation.

Negotiators on the bipartisan House immigration group last year frequently cited the need to return to their districts during recesses as a reason why their work dragged on for months. The group ultimately broke up after the August recess and never released its bill.

Cantor spokeswoman Megan Whittemore said the floor schedule has not prevented the House from stockpiling more than 200 bills that are now awaiting action in the Senate.

“Instead of making excuses, it’s time for Harry Reid and Senate Democrats to take up some of the House passed bills to get America working again,” Whittemore said.

A Reid spokesman did not return requests for comment.

Complaints about the House and Senate also overlook an open secret in Washington: With Congress as unpopular as it has ever been, members of both parties want to be in their districts as much as possible, lest they be criticized for “losing touch” with their constituents.

Lawmakers insist the word “recess” is a misnomer and that they work as long or even longer hours back home, meeting with constituent groups and helping people navigate the federal bureaucracy to access benefits or services. 

“It’s basically one of the redeeming parts of working in the Congress right now, particularly since nothing gets done on the legislative side,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said. “The fact of the matter is right now I feel more gratified by what I do in the district.”

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