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Congress only has four full legislative workdays in the next nine weeks

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

In the New York Times, Jonathan Weisman points out that Congress is going to spend as few as seven days in session before the November 4 midterm elections. And even that's a generous estimate:

House members will arrive late Monday with the promise of an early getaway Thursday afternoon, no real work until the Wednesday after that and, if all goes according to plan, a midafternoon getaway on Sept. 19 that will extend until Nov. 12. Discounting the days with a late start or an early ending, Congress may have just four full workdays over the next nine weeks.

Perhaps Congress will add more full legislative workdays to the schedule, but there's no particular reason to count on it.

You can go too far bashing congressional recess and criticizing the time members of Congress spend back in their districts. For the most part, this isn't vacation. A member of Congress's job is supposed to spend time in their district meeting with voters and businesses and interest groups — that's how they know whom it is that they're representing, and how to represent them. It's part of their job, and they treat it as such. I wrote about this back at the Washington Post:

Congress spends a lot of time "out of session" because that's the time members of Congress can spend back home in their districts. These aren't vacations. They're work of a different kind.

As it happens, we have pretty good data on this. The Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed members of Congress on how they spend their time. The results were released anonymously, so members has no reason to lie, and the CMF has access to the actual schedules of some members, so they can see if the self-reporting varies wildly from the day-to-day agenda.

The numbers to keep in mind here are 70 and 59. That's the number of hours, respectively, members of Congress report working when they're in Washington vs. back home in their district. So it's true that your senator doesn't work quite as hard when she heads home. But she's still putting in a 60-hour week. That's not a vacation.

And woe unto the member of Congress who spends too much time in Washington and too little back in her district: a challenger will quickly seize on that as evidence that the incumbent has lost touch with the voters back home.

Nevertheless, it's also part of Congress's job to be in Washington trying to build coalitions and pass legislative solutions to the nation's problems. And there are plenty of problems right now: between ISIS and the child migrant crisis and Ebola and aging infrastructure and all the other sundry dangers facing the country, four full legislative workdays between now and November 4 is ridiculous.

The best defense for Congress is that it's not as if they're getting much done when they are working in Washington: this is on track to be the least productive Congress on record.

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