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Why the reasonable-sounding "40-hour workweek for Congress" idea would actually backfire

Washington's political process is broken, but Congress shouldn't mindlessly pass legislation, either. Photo of Rep. David Jolly, 2014.
Washington's political process is broken, but Congress shouldn't mindlessly pass legislation, either. Photo of Rep. David Jolly, 2014.
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Congress would make a ton of progress just by spending every day voting on legislation, right? That's the reasonable-sounding idea put forth by a Republican lawmaker's latest bill (h/t the Hill's Cristina Marcos).

Florida Rep. David Jolly has called on the "try-nothing" Congress to work at least eight hours a day, five days a week while it's in session. Jolly wrote in a statement that "Americans are sick and tired of Washington inaction. They expect their leaders to govern. Look at all the bills gathering dust while Congress braces for the next self-made calamity."

Despite this bold rhetoric, increasing voting activity isn't the same thing as making informed policy — and the implication that members of Congress don't currently work a lot of hours is untrue, anyway.

Members already work at least 40 hours a week

The bill presents misleading correlations between hours spent voting versus working, and between time spent voting versus making good policy. Let's start with the fact that members put in far more than an average workweek — it's just not all spent on the brief act of voting.

On average, members work about 70 hours a week, according to a survey conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management in 2013 (although this study hasn't been conducted since then). And for the record, the workweek of the average American is closer to 60 hours.

The legislative process includes more than just voting

The legislation would encourage voting activity by increasing the hours that members spend in session, and Jolly's characterization of Congress as a dysfunctional entity probably resonates deeply with many voters. One way to measure productivity is with legislative passage activity, which has decreased over time, as seen in this embedded chart. If you measured productivity by voting activity alone, you might come away very worried about how much work Congress actually does.

Yes, increasing mandatory voting hours would likely result in more activity and passage of laws on paper. But there's no reason to believe that the sole act of voting, or even legislative passage, makes the federal government more productive. No matter how many bills the House passes today, for example, the process still includes other checks and balances. The Senate and White House review legislation on their timing for every item the House passes.

If Congress really wants to increase its productivity in a valuable way, and not just on paper, it will need to find another yardstick than a simple count of yeas and nays.