Mice, Members of Congress Share Work Habits

Posted April 21, 2004 at 6:43pm

When Illinois State University Associate Professor of Psychology Thomas Critchfield discovered a couple of years back that his university laboratory had to be shut down because it no longer met federal standards for working with rats, some quick thinking led him to another group of guinea pigs — the U.S. Congress.

The results of his two-year study, published in a recent edition of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, is an intriguing examination of the phenomenon of procrastination by Congress.

“Congress completes most of its legislative work during the final months of session, and thus appears to ‘procrastinate’ in much the same way that laboratory subjects often do when working on fixed schedules of reinforcement,” Critchfield’s research concluded.

In simplistic terms, what that means is that monkeys, rats and Members of Congress all behave in pretty much the same manner when observed in similarly situated work environments — they put things off until the last minute.

“If things are set up so you can work at any time, but accountability comes at a predictable point later, what tends to happen is that all the effort gets concentrated nearer the moment of accountability,” explained Critchfield, noting: “If you want to think about Congress like monkeys, there’s some reason to do that.”

Turns out that in laboratory settings, monkeys that are periodically and predictably rewarded for performing a certain action — but only after a certain period of time has passed — tend to concentrate their efforts closer to the endpoint of the activity, when they know the reward is coming.

Scientific analysis of more than 50 years of bill production indicates that Members of Congress like monkeys, tend to wait until the last minute to get things done. Congress completes very little legislation during the first three months of each year, instead accomplishing 75 percent of its legislative work in the last three months of the years.

“They can get bills done any time, but they can’t go home and swagger to the voters and the money-givers until that session is over,” Critchfield said.

Critchfield is not the first behavioral scientist to take a look at this phenomenon in the context of how it applies to Congress.

In a memorable speech before the National Press Club in 1958, renowned behavioral biologist Joseph Brady described how Congress’ work environment seemed to mimic something scientists refer to as a “fixed-interval reinforcement schedule.” The resulting Washington Post story, complete with the monkey comparison, generated howls of laughter on Capitol Hill, and Brady’s theory inspired the first academic study on the phenomenon of Congressional procrastination in 1972.

With that research now dated, Critchfield decided to do a new analysis of the Capitol Hill work environment, and take his study even further by examining several potential explanations for such behavior, which on the surface, the professor admits, might seem a bit irrational.

After all, if one waits until the last minute to work, then they dramatically increase the chances of running out of time and may encounter other unexpected difficulties as well. Procrastinating students who wait until the last minute to study for an exam, for instance, may not absorb their subject matter as readily as they might if they learned it over a period of time.

But he says it’s hard to blame Members of Congress for their procrastination.

“It seems to tap into something that’s real primitive about our mental makeup,” Critchfield said.

After several months of tallying up legislation bill by bill (annual patterns of bill production were examined from the 81st through the 106th Congresses), Critchfield and his students confirmed that Congress had a consistent, reliable pattern of procrastinating in the legislative process for the past 50 years.

The Illinois researchers decided they needed to look beyond the numbers.

“We went on to see if we could seize on any of the possible reasons Congress might do this,” Critchfield said.

In laboratory research about learning and adaptation, patterns of procrastination tend to change when certain circumstances change.

For instance, in laboratory tests, when the moment of accountability comes and the reward is large, there tends to be a longer period of procrastination the next time around.

Could Critchfield and his students predict what Congress would do under similar circumstances?

“With Congress, we thought that the size of the break at the end of the session is sort of the size of the payoff. The longer you’re away from Washington, the more you can press flesh and raise money,” Critchfield explained.

Sure enough, in four out of four cases tests, Congress behaved just like laboratory subjects, procrastinating even longer in a year following a year in which they had larger chunks of time off.

Critchfield then set out to examine whether there was any truth to another argument favored by Congress watchers — that legislation is just the tip of the iceberg and perhaps the reason bills get passed at the end of the year is that it takes lawmakers all year to get them to that point.

But Critchfield found no evidence that a heavy workload tends to bog bills down in Congress.

In fact, Critchfield and his students found that as the number of issues facing Congress increases, Congressional productivity actually tends to pick up, meaning that the workload hypothesis can’t explain the procrastination.

Likewise, the researchers examined whether the length of time that Congress engages in legislative preparation activities — committee hearings, for instance — creates delays in the legislative process.

But the amount of time lawmakers spend preparing their bills seems to be mutable. Bills introduced later in a Congress actually had a shorter lag time in getting to the floor than those introduced earlier in Congress, and the more time Congress spent having committee and subcommittee hearings actually seemed to speed the pace of bill production and passage.

The third and final potential explanation for procrastination that Critchfield examined was political climate.

“We found some indication that might have some influence over this,” Critchfield said. “If people don’t get along in Congress, it can take longer [to pass a bill]. We found some evidence of this, but it’s mixed.”

According to Critchfield, ideology seems to matter more in the Senate than in the House.

When Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are more ideologically separated, one tends to see more procrastination in legislation and when their ideology is more similar, bills get passed faster — but the same thing did not hold true in the House — a finding that Critchfield thinks may stem from the required supermajority of 60 percent required by the Senate to pass a bill.

So, faced with such inconsistencies, what message did these scientists draw?

“The take-home message for this is that anything as complicated as Congress, there are multiple reasons why things turn out as they do, but our data point pretty tightly to a basic accountability system, where the spoils of politics are available only at the end of the year,” Critchfield remarked.

Critchfield thinks his conclusions about lawmakers’ behavior might be of some comfort to voters: “It makes it hard to hate the people there. They’re kind of a creature of their environment.”