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Congress needs five-day work week

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POSTED: September 11, 2009 11:34 a.m.
Looking at ways to make Congress a stronger, more effective institution, it’s easy for reformers to get dispirited by the sheer complexity of the task. How do you even begin to fix the budget process, or reduce the hold of campaign money on members’ attention, or change the lopsided power equation between Congress and the White House? Yet there is one small improvement that Congress could put into effect that would go a long way toward making it a more successful body: extend the congressional work week.
I’m not suggesting members of Congress are sloughing off. Far from it. They work hard. It’s just that much of their work involves tasks other than legislating. Most of the year, they devote only three days a week to this fundamental responsibility. The rest of the time, they’re raising money, speaking, politicking in the district, traveling on fact-finding visits, meeting with lobbyists and constituents and attending to the myriad other responsibilities members of Congress believe to be their job.
Only during the middle days of the week is their attention focused on the hard and often tedious work of crafting language on difficult policy issues — the core of their constitutional reason for being.
Even then, if you spend time on Capitol Hill, you cannot help but be impressed by the frenzied pace legislators maintain during the few days they’re there. They rush from one hearing to another; they hold countless meetings with lobbyists or groups of constituents, interrupted by a quick dash to the floor for votes; they give speeches, spend time with the media, attend receptions and fundraisers and put out dozens of telephone calls.
They usually seem tired, which is why I often think of advice I got from the great New York Times newsman James “Scotty” Reston when I arrived in Congress in the mid-1960s. “Make sure,” he told me, “that you take the time to put your feet up on the table, look out the window, and think.” When I repeated this to some congressmen recently, they just laughed — they recognized good advice when they heard it, but also recognized that getting even a few minutes to reflect at peace seems impossible these days.
The manic schedule members of Congress maintain costs them more than the chance to get their thoughts in order. It hurts their ability to be effective. Good legislating takes time. It demands the patient pursuit of consensus, the working through of alternatives, the ability to test ideas in debate, and a willingness to build the broad consensus necessary for effective legislation.
All of this is pretty much impossible if you usually devote only three — or three and a half — days a week to the work. Many members don’t have the opportunity to get to know one another, and therefore to build the trust required to work across party and ideological lines. Time for debate and deliberation — key constitutional responsibilities — gets constrained.
The opportunities multiply for pursuing delaying tactics, playing against the clock, or, in the Senate, threatening a filibuster. Leaders have more leeway to circumvent good democratic process by cramming complex legislation into last-minute, must-pass legislation. The cramped congressional schedule, in other words, curtails the deliberative process and encourages the dysfunctional habits that the American people have come to identify with Congress.
This is why returning to a five-day work week on Capitol Hill, at least for three out of every four weeks, is so important.
I recognize that it is politically difficult to pull off — the jet airplane has made returning home to the district so easy members feel they must do so every Thursday evening or risk alienating constituents and the local media. But if they’re interested in producing good legislation, there is no substitute for time spent doing so.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House for 34 years.
 

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