The Myth That Congress Doesn't Work Hard

Forget the headlines and late-night jokes. Your representatives work 60 to 70 hours a week, whether they're in Washington or back home.
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Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona at a town hall with constituents in Goodyear, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore)

The House finished its last official business of the year Thursday and many lawmakers quickly fled Washington, after spending only 126 days in session for all of 2013. Next year, House members are scheduled to be in Washington even less—just 113 days.

It's nothing new (the House was in session for 107 days in 2012), and legislative indolence is a favorite topic of everyone from late-night talk-show hosts to your neighborhood barber. It's one of the few ways to discuss politics with strangers or near-strangers in this polarized society and not worry about offending anyone. It's a safe, lightly populist, nonpartisan political criticism that your bigoted uncle and hippie college-student cousin can equally appreciate at Christmas dinner. It requires no serious analysis or understanding of how Congress works, nor of the individual human beings who walk its halls. It's the lowest common denominator of political discourse.

And it's also dead wrong.

Congress's laziness is so taken for granted that it's never really challenged. In reality, while there are lots of nice perks, members of Congress have a grueling job, whether in Washington or at home in their states and districts. And in an age when the two chambers don't do much, they may be better off at home anyway.

When the House releases its calendar for the upcoming year, as it did for 2014 a few weeks ago, it inevitably elicits headlines like this: "Congress Working Less Than 1/3 of Year in 2014, Getting Full Salary." One blog offered a faux recruiting pitch: "Want a job with 239 vacation days? Become a member of Congress." Another was more blunt, calling Congress the "laziest sacks in history of being lazy sacks."

But you might want to think twice before running for Congress in the hopes of getting a cushy desk job. According to a survey by the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that for the past 35 years has worked as a sort of consultancy for lawmakers, members of Congress work on average 70 hours a week when they're in town and almost 60 hours a week when they're not.

A sample schedule provided to the foundation shows a typical member beginning work with a speaking engagement at 9 a.m. and working straight through until 9:30 p.m. Wash, rinse, repeat the next day—and every day after that. Just 15 percent to 17 percent of an average lawmaker's waking life is reserved for personal or family time. A large majority of members—66 percent—say they've missed a "major family-related event" within the past year because of their job, while nine in 10 say they don't get enough time with their family. "We've worked with 500 members of Congress on strategic planning; we see their schedules," says CMF President and CEO Brad Fitch. "It's a myth that members of Congress have it easy."

Everything is scheduled in lawmakers' lives, from haircuts to exercise to reading, which Fitch says creates an "out-of-control feeling." Just 16 percent of lawmakers say they feel they have "adequate control" of their schedule.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said one of his goals in creating the "Quiet Time Caucus," which conducts an informal 30-minute period of silence weekly in the Congressional Prayer Room, was to carve out space where lawmakers can just pause. "Members of Congress never have a moment to just be quiet, from the moment they get up in the morning when they turn on Morning Joe or whatever, to meetings and votes all day, to the moment they fall asleep, often with the TV on," Ryan told me in July.

Being in the district is better, but hardly a vacation. Representatives spend long days—especially weekends when there are likely to be parades or sporting events—meeting with constituents, touring facilities, speaking at gatherings, hearing concerns from businesses and nonprofits, holding town halls, and talking to the press. While it's often dismissed, this kind of work is a critical part of their job. "Members have two primary responsibilities: They have a legislative responsibility and a representative responsibility," Fitch explains. There's a reason they're called representatives. Every member has a story about getting lobbied by a constituent at a Little League game or in the supermarket.

For many junior House members who have little role in legislation, constituent work is arguably more important than anything they'd do in Washington. Whether it's helping people get their Social Security checks or navigate the Veterans Affairs Department, legislators can at least see tangible benefits to their work.

The assumption that Congress should convene more is predicated on the idea that members would get more done if they spent additional time here. That may have been true in other Congresses, but it's clearly not the case in this one. It's not only that Congress is polarized and gridlocked but that Republican leaders are actively hostile to its work. When a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was asked about the new slimmed-down calendar shortly after Republicans took the majority, he replied, "More days in session has always resulted in bigger, more intrusive government, not more production."

Former Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, explained it this way: "I think a lot of Republicans feel they were put there to stop the Obama agenda …. You can look at it as the least productive Congress, but a lot of them see that as their job."

Still, even GOP lawmakers understand political realities. When Democrats took over the House in 2007 and instituted a mandatory five-day workweek, the Republicans griped but admitted they couldn't do much. "The majority has had the better of this argument so far because it is a lot of fun to talk about members of Congress that don't work," said then-GOP Whip Roy Blunt. "The late-night comedians love the idea that Congress was suddenly going to work five days a week."

None of this is to say that lawmakers have been doing their jobs with distinction. They've passed a historically low number of bills, let the government shut down, and driven their approval rating to an all-time low. But spending more time in Washington probably won't help much.

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Alex Seitz-Wald is a reporter for National Journal

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