Congress should cancel August recess if it keeps falling behind

Congress should cancel August recess if it keeps falling behind
© Greg Nash

Members of Congress work hard in Washington and in their home districts. The August recess is a near sacrosanct tradition and an important extended time for members to interact with their own constituents. Canceling the recess would be almost unfathomable but for one hard fact: Congress is far behind where it should be in the number of days it has worked in Washington on the people’s business.

What is the proper D.C.-to-home state balance? The bipartisan Commission on Political Reform (CPR) and several other reformers have proposed the idea that Congress should spend three weeks working five days a week in Washington followed by a week working in the district. That reform proposal also allows for a special dispensation for the entire month of August as recess in the districts.

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Three weeks in D.C. followed by one week at home gives Congress the sustained time need to legislate, conduct oversight, and interact with and check the executive branch. The alternative, as one of the CPR commissioners, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle noted, is that “it is hard to run a superpower working Tuesday to Thursday.”

While Congress is not currently on this ideal schedule, how does it measure up to this standard in the total number of days worked in Washington? Not well, unfortunately. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Healthy Congress Index measures the number of days that the House and Senate spend “working” in Washington. It is not the number of days in session, which is sometimes inflated by pro forma days. It is not only the number of days when the House or Senate has a vote on the floor, because serious D.C. work can and does occur in committees and debate.

Our definition of working days in Washington is the number of days that the House or Senate is in session for more than one hour and takes up either a vote or engages in debate. By this measure, Congress is falling far short of the amount of time needed to effectively govern. Working three weeks of five days each month in Washington and allowing for the month of August at home means that by the end of the first quarter of 2018, Congress should have worked 210 days in D.C. in the 115th Congress. In reality, the Senate has worked only 196 and the House a paltry 171.

While far short of the ideal, lawmakers are working in D.C. slightly more frequently than the past couple of congresses. Regrettably, Congress has fallen into the habit of too little time coming together in Washington. But when Congress puts its mind to dedicating time to national priorities, it does find the time. The 104th Senate, controlled by Republicans, and the 111th Senate, controlled by Democrats, worked 236 and 224 days in D.C., respectively, over the same time period. The House in both of those congresses fell short of the ideal, but still worked significantly more days in Washington than any of the recent congresses.

Working hard on Capitol Hill followed by working hard in the district is a formula for true representation. But if Congress continues to fall short on its work for the American people in Washington, it is difficult to justify sending lawmakers home for August.

John Fortier is director of the democracy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He has written extensively on elections and government and is the editor of After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College.