MLK Day: Why you get a weekend and Congress takes a week

You're back at work after MLK Day. Not Congress – settled into a routine of long breaks and a three-day-workweek. Lawmakers would get more done if they spent more time in Washington, some reformers say.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Republican lawmakers arrive at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, their last day in session until Monday, Jan. 27. From left to right are: Sen. John Boozman (R) of Arkansas, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, and Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas.

Most Americans who have MLK Day off will return to their jobs tomorrow. Not Congress. It’s taking the whole week off – the mid-January break – to be followed by the mid-February break, another recess in March, and so on through the months until August, which is completely free.

And that’s not all. Many Americans might not realize it, but their members of Congress, when they're in Washington, generally work only three days a week. House and Senate leaders brief reporters on what’s ahead on Tuesdays, give wrap-up press conferences on Thursdays, and then, like the Nike swoosh logo, they’re outta here.

“We have to learn how to put in a decent week’s worth of work on the floor again,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky urged from the chamber this month. He was speaking about how the increasingly divisive Senate needs to change its ways, and he’s not alone in his views.

Many lawmakers and observers believe that if members of Congress didn’t skip town so often, partisan tensions would ease and more work would get done. Last year was the least productive, as measured by legislation enacted, since World War II.

These extollers of the “good old days” remember when lawmakers actually lived full-time in the D.C.-area with their families, instead of doubling-and-tripling up for a few days in town houses on Capitol Hill. They showed up at the same soccer games to cheer on their kids, barbecued on weekends, and had many more opportunities to socialize with each other across party lines.  

Not long ago, congressional committees produced the lion’s share of legislation, and members of both parties had to work with each other on it. But today, a lot of the legislation originates in the leaders’ offices, diminishing the role of committees.

All this matters because it’s harder to demonize your opponents when you know them, and knowing them allows for more effective legislating – itself a time-consuming process. For most members, the House gym is one of the last places where Republicans and Democrats still mix casually.

Some members of Congress are trying to bring back the old collegiality. Rep. Luke Messer (R) of Indiana is president of the GOP freshman class in the House. Unusually, he moved his family to Washington. (The Hill reports that he sometimes has his office television playing cartoons for his children.) He has hosted family get-togethers with Democrats who have also moved their families to the area.

Olympia Snowe, the former Republican senator from Maine, also urges more time in Washington in her 2013 book “Fighting for Common Ground.” If Congress returned to the five-day work week, took fewer breaks, and synchronized the House and Senate schedules (they overlapped by only one week in the crucial rush-to-the-finish-line month of December), then representatives and senators would have more time and tamer temperaments “to address the critical issues,” she argues.

But the rhythm of Congress also has a history – and logic – that pushes against such reforms.

Scheduling has changed drastically over the decades. From 1789 until the 1930s, Congress met during the first five or six months of the year, and that was it. By the 1960s, that schedule had expanded well into the fall, and in 1963, the Senate met the entire year with no break longer than a three-day weekend, says Betty Koed, the Senate’s associate historian. It was so bad that the late majority leader Mike Mansfield (D) of Montana, commented that he no longer recognized his wife during daylight hours. In 1970, Congress bowed to the member pressure to ease the long sessions and scorching summers and adopted, by law, the August recess. 

Cultural pressures in the 1990s largely shaped today’s commuter schedule: Spouses, mostly wives, began to have careers of their own and didn’t want to move to the nation’s capital, or to uproot their children. The perpetual campaign required members to be in their districts more, even as the reputation of Washington sank, making absence a political plus. Neither the House nor Senate generally schedules any meaningful votes on Mondays or Fridays, so that members – especially those from far-away states – can travel back to their homes each week.

Meanwhile, the Internet allows lawmakers to be in touch from wherever. “Senate jobs are 24/7 and go with you wherever you go,” says Ms. Koed. “It’s misleading,” she adds, to give the impression that because members of Congress are not physically on Capitol Hill, they’re not working. Members don’t consider a week back home as a break. On the official House calendar, it’s called a “constituent work week.” Usually, the time home is packed with town halls and other events. Representative Messer, for instance, had 17 events scheduled in 48 hours over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Of course, there’s work and there’s work. Former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, who served in the House from 1965 to 1999, complains that when lawmakers are in Washington, their schedules are crowded out by fundraisers, meet-and-greets, and receptions.

“Legislating is tough, demanding work. It requires many hours of conversation about differences, commonalities, and possible solutions,” Mr. Hamilton wrote last month. “Yet when Congress meets only episodically throughout the year, when it often works just three days a week and plans an even more relaxed schedule in 2014, you can only come to one conclusion: They’re not really willing to work hard at legislating.”

That’s pretty much what Senator McConnell thinks. He made it clear that if Republicans retake the Senate in November, he’ll change the schedule to extend the workweek. “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," he said.

One senator may not be happy about that: the Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid. He has to travel from Nevada.

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