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.

Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom
New House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia (center), has proposed a new legislative calendar to make lawmakers' time in session more efficient and productive. But critics see the makings of a do-nothing Congress.

Would you like to earn a week's vacation for every two weeks you work? If so, you should run for Congress. According to the restructured legislative calendar that new House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia has set, House lawmakers in Washington will generally stay in session for two consecutive weeks, then get a week off.

To be sure, few members will head to the beach. Between fundraisers, town-hall meetings, and constituent services, they tend to work at least as hard out of session as they do in it. Still, the new calendar has plenty of critics.

Do-nothing Congress?

"It's hard to imagine why nothing gets done in Washington," scoffed blogger Barbara Morrill at the liberal Daily Kos website. Even some conservatives are upset. Freshman tea party member Allen West (R) of Florida complained that the calendar doesn't square with voter priorities.

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"As we know, Congress needs to work to create jobs, reduce the deficit, strengthen our economy, limit the size of government, and contend with a plethora of national security issues," Rep. West wrote in a letter to Rep. Cantor. "How are we to do that when, among other things, we start off being in session only ten days the entire month of January?"

Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring challenged the premise of West's criticism: "More days in session has always resulted in bigger, more intrusive government, not more production. What matters is who's in charge and the process put in place, not the number of days in session," said Mr. Dayspring, according to a report in The Hill.

Technically, the House schedule is fairly consistent with years past. Members will be in session 123 days, compared to an average of 126 days that first sessions of Congress worked between 1993 and 2010. It's the number of weeks that is dropping significantly, 11 percent – a bid to force Congress to be more efficient while in Washington.

Would you like to see members of Congress work in Washington for longer stretches of time? Or is this a case where less is more?

California vs. Texas

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

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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