Observers Say Congress is Not as Idle as it Seems
By J.T. Rushing, Reporter
WASHINGTON — Congress returns to work this week after a five-week vacation — one of several taken each year — and will settle into a typical three-day workweek.
It may seem to many Iowans that members of Congress don’t deserve their salaries. But the reality is quite different, say members of the Eastern Iowa congressional delegation, as well as non-partisan political observers around the country.
Members of the House and Senate all receive $174,000 per year in salary — unchanged since 2009, and not including retirement and health benefits. But the work schedule for Congress isn’t tied to salaries, and it may seem skimpy. Both chambers are in session full-time Tuesdays through Thursdays on a regular week, with votes sometimes scheduled late on Mondays or early on Fridays. Otherwise, Mondays and Fridays are used as travel days, so members can travel to and from their districts and their states on the taxpayers’ dime, as they have been able to do since the late 1960s.
This seemingly skimpy schedule may be one reason why Congress’s approval ratings are at or near an all-time low, depending on the poll.
But most political observers say Congress’s work habits don’t seem to matter to Americans as much as what Congress does or doesn’t do. At the University of Iowa, political science professor Tim Hagle joined others in noting that work habits change from member to member in Congress, and that many times members work far more hours than usual in a typical week.
“For some folks, saying they don’t have a 40-hour workweek is true, because they may be working 60 or 70 hours a week,” Hagle said. “They’re not in a standard 8 to 5 situation, so sometimes the things they do that don’t sound like work actually involves them doing something for their party or their constituents. Even when they’re traveling on Mondays or Fridays, a lot of times they’re doing work. They’re reading briefing materials or talking to constituents. A lot of times I’ll hear from people how they’ve met so-and-so congressman on a plane and they’ve ended up talking about a particular issue.”
At Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., 34-year congressman Lee Hamilton has heard it before. Hamilton represented Indiana in the U.S. House from 1965 to 1999, and is now director of the Center on Congress at IU. He said that he understands voters are pragmatic and want results — but that they don’t necessarily understand how Congress works.
Fundraising, Hamilton said, is part of the problem. House members are in a constant struggle since they must run for re-election every two years, and even senators must constantly fundraise for their six-year elections because the costs of Senate campaigns keep escalating.
“People in Congress work very hard, but it’s not all legislative. They work far more than three days a week. They just spend an enormous amount on activities other than legislative,” Hamilton said. “Legislation today is a very complex business. Reaching consensus is very hard to do. You cannot force it; it takes time. It takes exhaustive periods of discussion and debate to reach agreement on controversial issues … And I agree with what most members have said, that they have to raise a lot of money. And raising a lot of money takes an awful lot of time and effort, and that’s time taken away from legislating.”
Eastern Iowa’s congressional delegation has heard the criticism, but they are quick to point out the many town halls, constituent meetings, and various other district visits they go through during each weekend or recess. Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat from the state’s 1st Congressional District, said his schedule leaves “hardly a dull moment in my day” even when Congress is out of session. He does this, he says, to ensure Iowans are connected.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, kept his annual pledge to visit all 99 of Iowa’s counties in a year, hosting 21 town halls in August.
Grassley’s typical work schedule, according to his staff: In by 6 a.m., leave between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. for his part-time home in Washington, followed by a few hours of emails and correspondence.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, kept busy as well during the recess. The senator went to Brussels, Belgium, for an Aspen Institute congressional conference on economic development and national security issues facing the United States, Europe and Russia. Following a Senate vote late Monday, he intends to start meeting again with Iowa constituent groups on Tuesday.
Like others, Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, returns to his district almost every weekend, flying to and from Washington with a stack of briefing books and phone call notes to prepare for a meeting or a hearing. His staff says they receive emails at 5 a.m., and that Loebsack usually hits the gym before showing up at the office between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. There is often no lunch except for a sandwich during a meeting, followed by a few hours of evening work time. His staff says Loebsack has hosted about 400 different events in Iowa so far this year.
Loebsack said he understands why Congress’s low approval ratings isn’t linked to its schedule.
“It isn’t hard to see why Iowans think Congress as a body isn’t working hard. They see how broken it is when Congress takes undeserved five-week vacations and kicks the can down the road on so many critical issues … While I have made it a top priority to be in Iowa, meeting with folks, I know they want to see Congress actually get something done. With so much on the ‘to-do list’ Congress should be doing the people’s work, not taking vacations and seizing every opportunity to hobnob.”
Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington, said he thinks members of Congress work hard.
“They have committee work, floor work, constituent work, and when they go home they talk to constituents and do casework. I don’t think the negative view of Congress has to do with how hard they work. It’s more because they can’t get anything done.”
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