Could Congress Prevent the Looming Shutdown by Spending More Time in D.C.?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is no way to run a government.
By Daniel Malloy
April began with no apparent progress toward a deal to keep the government running with a deadline fast approaching, so Congress did what it does best: It left town for a two-week recess. Lawmakers return Monday with just four days to wriggle out of a familiar jam. As governing-by-crisis amid toxic political disputes has increased, so too have lawmakers’ absences from the Capitol. According to an analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center:
The number of workdays Congress spends in Washington has declined 10 percent over the past decade.
U.S. House members spent just 227 days working in Washington in 2015 and 2016 — 31 percent of their time. The numbers have fluctuated, particularly in the less predictable Senate, but a decades-long downward trend is clear. Members of Congress chafe at the idea that recess means playtime, and they do put in long hours meeting with folks back home and traveling overseas on fact-finding missions. (Not that their time in Washington is always spent on the nation’s business, with oodles of hours budgeted for lobbyist-jammed fundraisers and “call time” to ask for more campaign money.) But actual legislating happens only when Congress is in town.
You can’t run a superpower on a Wednesday.
Tom Daschle, co-founder, Bipartisan Policy Center, former Senate majority leader
Improved air travel and a political imperative to stay in touch with constituents mean that lawmakers and their families now tend to live in their home states instead of in the D.C. area. They spend Washington nights in grungy group houses — the pad that Sen. Chuck Schumer shared with three fellow Democrats became fodder for a sitcom — or in cots in their offices, all the more incentive to ditch town sooner. “We have slowly moved to be a Congress that tends to be working Tuesday to Thursday,” says John Fortier, director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Fortier cited a saying by Tom Daschle, a BPC co-founder and former Senate majority leader: “You can’t run a superpower on a Wednesday.”
Funding disputes such as the one boiling over this week are nothing new — there were eight brief government shutdowns under President Ronald Reagan — but Congress’ spending failures have become egregious. Friday’s deadline is itself the result of a punt from the end of the fiscal year in September, by which point Congress is supposed to clear 12 separate bills to fund each corner of the government. Instead, as has become routine, a “continuing resolution” kept the government essentially on autopilot.
Granted their extension, lawmakers still did not use the intervening months to debate and vote on those 12 bills. Instead, a deal negotiated behind the scenes will be put forth in the coming days, leaving the rank and file little time to scrutinize it. The same bastardized process has played out for years. “We don’t even try to do the appropriations bills anymore,” says Jamie Dupree, a longtime radio reporter for Cox Media Group. “When I first came to Capitol Hill as a reporter in the 1980s, your memory of June and July was a blur, because you worked late on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as the House and Senate did spending bills, and a blizzard of amendments and big issues would be brought up.”
While there are plenty of reasons why Congress hasn’t passed its spending bills on time since 1996, less time in Washington clearly is a factor. “Appropriations bills take time,” Fortier says. “They take floor time, and they take committee time. … Concentrated time and expertise and focus on these things would make a difference in getting these things done.”
BPC recommends five-day workweeks, with every fourth week on recess. Congress, so far, hasn’t acted on that input. For now, newly returned lawmakers will spend the next few days scrambling for a deal to keep the government open — and go home for the weekend.