Members of Congress will depart Washington soon for the July Fourth recess (or district/constituent work period), with another long recess coming in August. This will lead to the annual attack by interest groups, cynical columnists and some constituents that Congress is “not working” during this period. A couple of years ago, The Washington Post ran a column titled “Congress Finds Plenty of Time to Take Vacation” with an accompanying picture of a beach chair.
The media constantly mocks congressional “recesses” as if our elected officials are collectively streaming out of Washington every month to the proverbial schoolyard to play kickball. As members and staff know, the reality is much different. Members of Congress fill up their time back in the district or state by conducing tours of businesses, meeting with constituent groups and interacting with local officials.
The Congressional Management Foundation recently released a study on what members of Congress actually do with their time in Washington and in the district (“Life in Congress: The Member Perspective”) that busted quite a few myths. Based in part on a survey of two dozen members of Congress, a key finding was how many hours legislators work on average. In Washington, legislators reported working 70 hours a week; in the district, they reported working 59 hours a week.
The Associated Press recently featured Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, a peripatetic and habitual convener of town hall meetings in his state. Many of the meetings are attended by fewer than 100 citizens, offering constituents powerful opportunities to interact with a senior member of the Senate. Freshman Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., displays an amazing monthly infographic on his Facebook page that recounts constituent meetings, speeches and other local activities.
According to the CMF survey of legislators, the top activity during recess was “Constituent Services Work” (32 percent), followed by “Political Campaign Work” (18 percent) and “Press/Media Relations” (14 percent). It’ll probably shock most Americans to know that members of Congress actually think that interacting with the people who elected them is a big part of their job. When legislators were asked to rank by importance the work they do, “staying in touch with constituents” was at the top of the list. Perhaps this is one of the reasons citizens consistently rate their own member of Congress highly but rate the institution lowly.
Members also report that the changes to the House schedule implemented in 2011 allow them to spend more time with constituents. The Republican leadership significantly increased the number of recesses from five to 13 in 2011, and it scheduled 11 recesses in 2012 and 11 recesses in 2013. The number of Mondays through Fridays available for district events grew exponentially.
Members also report their district schedule is more predictable, their time in the district is more productive, and they are better able to balance D.C. and district activities. And for an added bonus, nearly two-thirds (62 percent) report that the new schedule has allowed them to spend more time with their family.
Rather than decrying these breaks from Washington, constituent interest groups should embrace these opportunities to build relationships with lawmakers. Previous CMF research concluded that meaningful interactions between citizens and members of Congress on policy issues enhanced the citizens’ understanding of the issue, increased the constituents’ trust in their legislators — even increased the likelihood the citizen would vote! In a survey of congressional staff, 97 percent noted that “attending events in the district/state” was important or very important for “understanding views and opinions of constituents” — the top-rated item. And in another CMF survey of House chiefs of staff, 71 percent said they had “no preference” whether their boss met with a constituent group in the district/state or in Washington, suggesting that many groups are missing an opportunity to easily connect with legislators when they’re back home.
Members of Congress engage in valuable legislative activity when in Washington — but this is not the totality of their job description. Interacting with constituents in the state is not just a way for constituents to better understand their lawmakers and their work, it is a valuable ingredient to our democratic dialogue and essential for members of Congress to understand the effects their decisions have on the constituents they serve.
Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.