Five-Day Workweek Is Key to Restoring a Vibrant Congress

Posted February 16, 2007 at 5:49pm

One of the most interesting developments for me since the new Congress began has been the pushback by many Members of the House and Senate to the new schedule, with several consecutive weeks in session and the promise, if not always the reality, of five-day workweeks in Washington, D.C.

The resistance to five-day weeks has no partisan or ideological tilt to it; it has come from Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and others in between. For some, it has been framed in simple family terms — the need to spend time with the kids, to get back home to be with them or other family members. For others, it has been put in more high-minded ways: We have to connect with our [IMGCAP(1)]constituents and not be consumed with Washington work and ways. But it has been deep enough and strong enough that it has created a worrisome roadblock to the efforts of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to fundamentally alter the way Congress does its business.

I understand Members’ anxieties; I feel their pain. But they are wrong. The five-day week is the absolute linchpin to transformation of Congress back to a vibrant, functioning, civil, deliberative body.

Congress as a civil and deliberative body began to deteriorate well before the Republican takeover in 1994. The combination of the rise of the permanent campaign and the advent of regular jet travel from National Airport to destinations all around the country made it both easy and imperative for lawmakers to get back home on a more regular basis. Once they started to go home every weekend or every other weekend, people back home began to expect the visits to the senior citizen homes, the speeches to the Rotary Clubs, the appearances at civic events. It all added to the pressures to be back more often.

When I came to Capitol Hill in 1969 to work for then-Rep. Donald Fraser (D-Minn.), my boss would go back to Minneapolis two or three weekends out of four even though his family was here in Washington; I went with him for one of these trips and was utterly exhausted when I got back to D.C. after a nonstop whirlwind of appointments, speeches, appearances and meetings. He was ready to go back to the fray in Washington. That was true for most of his colleagues — but what also was true is that they did have their families living here and interacting together; that they did not go back every single weekend, preserving some sense of family life in D.C.; and that on the weekends when they were here, they interacted with their colleagues and spouses. They threw dinner parties or went to movies — and often saw colleagues from both parties at school events, soccer games or the like.

For these lawmakers, there was a community on Capitol Hill and they were part of a larger community in the nation’s capital. It changed the way in which people interacted and changed the way people did their jobs.

The sense of community already was fraying in the 1970s and 1980s, as campaigning, and fundraising especially, moved to year-round and cycle-long phenomena. But the fraying accelerated in the 1990s, especially after 1994, as lawmakers coming in saw service in Washington not as a great honor and great experience but as an awful burden — a necessary one, of course, but a burden required to alter the course of policy and the role of government.

This new generation saw Washington as an awful place, akin to a leper colony — certainly not a place you wanted to expose your children to. It was bad enough to expose yourself to the pollution of Washington’s ways. So lawmakers with great fanfare kept their families home, and in many cases didn’t even descend to the level of renting an apartment, much less buying a condo or house. Instead, they slept on the couches in their offices, showered in the gym and got out of town as soon as humanly possible every week that Congress was around.

I and others, including former Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), tried to tell these Members that they were making a big mistake, including jeopardizing their marriages. Many did get divorced; their families would wait during the week for their parent to come home, but when he (or she) arrived for the weekend, it was to hang a hat, drop off the laundry and get out for the endless appearances, speeches, etc. Their families missed the excitement and majesty that comes with being a part of the greatest democracy and greatest legislature in the world. And Congress lost immeasurably in its own sense of community.

Over time, the pressure to spend less time in Washington led to a ridiculously abbreviated schedule — come in Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., do a pro forma vote and leave, and then get out of town Thursday just after noon. This led to compressed and sloppy legislating and contributed to the decline in oversight, the collapse of any meaningful authorization process and the end of deliberation.

Now there is a chance to correct all of that. I don’t carry any strong brief for a particular way of doing so, but I believe it is most likely to work if Congress moves to a three-weeks-on/one-week-off schedule, leaving extended time for visits home but a clear expectation that during the weeks on, Members will be there from Monday morning through Friday afternoon — making them no different from the vast majority of the rest of the work force. More Members will find it better to bring their families here, either moving here or at least spending lots of time. They will then spend quality time with their colleagues and families. Strong views will not go away or be ameliorated — but partisan demonization will decline.

If lawmakers are in a rhythm of going into work at the Capitol each day, they may not have to vote all the time, but can do other things — read (imagine!); go to one of the incredible seminars occurring around town; think; plan and carry out serious and meaningful oversight hearings; conduct long and in-depth debates on an issue in committee or on the floor; or let a filibuster actually play out for a while, giving voice to an intense minority on an important issue.

I know full well the impediments here, including the 24/7 pressure to raise money, the difficulty of juggling family and work with two domiciles, and the outrageous cost of housing in the D.C. area. But this is one of the prices to be paid for asking voters for the privilege of serving in Congress. Three five-day workweeks in Washington out of four should not be too high a price, especially because the return will be so rich.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.