Why you should care
If the number of days spent in legislative session does not correlate with getting sh*t done, then why are we paying for unproductive legislators?
This year, the U.S. Congress will sit in session for 132 days — 20 days more than last year. Given its recent dismal record — Congress passed a measly 296 laws last session, one of the least productive in history — you might think our elected officials should spend more time in chambers. Why should they get to blame gridlock for not doing their jobs, and then go off on holiday — all the while taxpayers foot the bill?
But think again. Maybe the problem is not that Congress doesn’t meet enough. It’s that Congress meets too often.
The premise is simple: You are the company you keep. With its lobbyists, ideologues and political squabbles, Capitol Hill tends to foster partisanship of the kind most constituents don’t care about. It does not much reward compromise, which is a requisite to making politics work. When legislatures meet less often, “they’ll be there beside the hometown lawyer or the farmer,” points out University of Texas political scientist Sean Theriault.
Most state legislatures meet every year, but the legislatures of Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas are biennial. The rationale there is that less government equals better government — or at least government that makes fewer laws and levies fewer taxes. In Texas, it comes down to the small government tradition. “Texas has a firm ideological commitment to biennial meetings,” according to Southern Methodist University professor of political science Calvin Jillson. Jeffrey Greene, professor of political science at the University of Montana, says states like his “prefer a part-time, amateur legislature … a citizen’s legislature.”
Biennial meetings might also have the added benefit of deadline pressure: If you’ve got only 90 days to pass a budget that’s supposed to last two years, you will find a way, somehow, even if it involves compromise. Last year, Nevada’s legislature, which meets only once every two years, had its most productive legislative session in 30 years.
To be sure, meeting only once every 24 months comes with problems. “Texas’ economy is too big to readjust the numbers so infrequently,” says Texas Rep. Richard Raymond, who is frustrated that his legislature can’t quickly respond to recent fluctuations in the price of oil. Then there are worries about the representativeness of a part-time legislature: “Some people can’t afford to run for office because it is not a full-time job,” says former Rep. Sherri Greenberg. And the trend is not exactly catching on. Three states — Arkansas, Kentucky and Oregon — recently switched to annual meetings. For now, our federal legislators seem to benefit from their full-time gigs. The Center for Responsive Politics recently released a study showing that the median net worth of one member of Congress is 18 times that of the average American.
Yea or nay? Gridlock welcome in the comments.