As August recess descends on Washington, we can expect the predictable complaint about Congress: Why do they deserve a vacation? They’re not getting anything done. They should stay in Washington and work harder.
Indeed, this has become a standard rejoinder to those frustrated with Congress’s dysfunction. Not only are they always taking vacations, but even when they’re in session, they’re usually here just Tuesday to Thursday — hardly enough time to get anything done. Some members of Congress have even introduced bills requiring members of Congress to commit to 40-hour workweeks. The advocacy group No Labels has a five-day workweek proposal.
But would more hours in session yield a more productive Congress? One big problem with that theory is that, going back to 1973, there has been no meaningful change in the number of hours Congress is in session. The below graph comes from a new R Street Institute analysis, “Are Long Weekends Reducing Congress’ Productivity?” by Casey Burgat and Charles Hunt. They looked at the hours both chambers spent in session, going back to the 93rd Congress (1973-1974). The trend line is basically flat.
And yet congressional productivity has obviously declined. But as Burgat and Hunt show, there’s no meaningful relationship between the two trend lines.
This suggests something else is contributing to the decline in congressional productivity. Burgat and Hunt single out the two obvious culprits: increasing partisan polarization and declining staff capacity.
Since the 1970s, partisan polarization has increased. Parties are further apart from each other, and less and less willing to compromise. And since, as Frances Lee convincingly argues, we’ve been in a period of unusually tight partisan competition since the 1980s, partisan teamsmanship has increased as a result. Neither side wants to work together because doing so undermines the chance that their side will either hold or win the majority.
Moreover, congressional staff capacity has been steadily declining since the 1980s. Congress simply has fewer staff members, especially in key committee policymaking positions. Congressional staff are essential. Read any major policy history and you will find that behind landmark legislation are dozens of hardworking staff, toiling intensely for months, more often years, to organize hearings and orchestrate complex compromises and deals and master difficult technical details. In many cases, members themselves only come in at the last minute.
It’s not the members’ time in Washington that matters in making policy. It’s their ability to hire and retain staff who can do the hard work necessary, and the underlying political conditions that make it easier for them to work out deals in the end.
While members of Congress like to portray themselves as heroic citizen legislators who do it all themselves, the perpetuation of this myth only makes things worse. It obscures the fact that they actually need considerable resources to represent their constituents well. It distracts from the reality that most of what they pretend is their “common sense” and “independent judgment” is just partisan teamsmanship. And it therefore naturally leads to the (wrong) conclusion: If they just all put in more work, they’d finally solve the problem.
Yes, you could require members of Congress to stay in Washington year-round, and spend every day in session. But the reality is that they’d almost certainly just spend all that time disagreeing with each other and not producing legislation, because the political incentives they face push against working together, because the centralized leadership structure of Congress makes it hard for them to do anything else, and because there are some deep philosophical disagreements that make it hard to agree.
Moreover, and significantly, lacking adequate staff capacity to work out potential areas of compromise and dealmaking, most members simply rely on party leaders’ talking points. And even if they could agree on principle, actually working out the details would take considerably more staff capacity than most offices currently have. And to the extent that they can occasionally work out deals, it’s mostly because lobbyists serve as the expert drafters and bipartisan go-betweens. However, since the vast majority of lobbyists represent business interests, outsourcing congressional policy capacity to private lobbyists creates other obvious problems.
Perhaps more time in Washington would allow some members to build better working relationships with each other outside of Congress, which over time, could improve congressional functioning. “However,” Burgat and Hunt warn, “the political incentives toward a more confrontational politics and severely limited congressional capacity may well continue to outweigh such potential gains.”
In short, the next time somebody tells you that members of Congress should just spend more time in Washington working, be skeptical. Time and effort are not the problem here.