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Will the 112th Congress work hard -- or hardly work?

As the 112th Congress begins this week, Republicans are starting to roll out their agenda. But they'll have to accomplish their to-do list with a tighter schedule, thanks to a new legislative calendar set by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

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California vs. Texas

Before you answer, consider the range of state legislative workloads.

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In most states, being a legislator is truly a part-time job. In Arkansas, for example, lawmakers will be in session from only Jan. 10 to March 10. Last year, they got paid just $15,362, plus a small per diem and mileage credit when in session. Texas legislators, meanwhile, earn just $7,200 annually and meet only once every two years – one of just four states that hold biennial sessions.

Seventy years ago, the opposite was true: Only four states met every year. "But as state budgets became more complicated and the federal government pushed more responsibilities onto the states, particularly in the 1960s and '70s, most legislatures switched to annual sessions, according to Brian Weberg, an official with the legislatures conference," The New York Times reported recently. That trend has resulted in the country's biggest states – like Pennsylvania, New York, and California – employing full-time lawmakers. Legislators in California make $95,000 a year.

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California's fiscal problems are immense, so it's tempting to conclude that more time in session correlates to bigger budget problems. There may be some connection between session time and state spending: "part-time" Texas has the lowest per capita spending rate in the country. But Texas lawmakers are also struggling to plug a $25 billion budget shortfall. Meanwhile, states as diverse as Connecticut, Virginia, Montana, Kentucky, and North Dakota are expecting budget surpluses.

One safe conclusion seems to be that the quality – not the quantity – of time lawmakers spend in session matters most. And that, it turns out, is how Eric Cantor himself defended his schedule. Republicans he said, will stress "quality over quantity." We'll know by February if he's right.


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