House Republican leaders recently did something that should outrage Americans of all parties and creeds: They declared that the people’s representatives will be working an average of only two days a week next year.
The House will be in session just 111 days in 2016. This means the chamber will be closed more weekdays (150) than open, and many of the 111 are partial days. That’s upward of 30 weeks of paid vacation for all 435 members of the House. Is it any wonder the House is not doing what the people want?
Worse, American taxpayers are subsidizing members of Congress so that they can take more time off. Lawmakers have awarded themselves essentially unlimited travel budgets so they can spend more time at home.
It began with good intentions years ago: Members of Congress, out of a desire to be in touch with their constituents, made sure they could travel home to their districts as often as they wished. But this has contributed to a culture in which lawmakers fly to Washington Tuesday morning and fly out Thursday evening when in session (and perhaps make a quick trip home Wednesday nights for the odd Rotary speech).
And how has being closer to their constituents worked out for them? Job approval of Congress stands at 13 percent in polls, near historical lows.
Lawmakers are spending too much time at home and not enough solving problems in Washington — and taxpayers are enabling lawmakers to blow off work rather than toil the five-day workweek that other American workers do.
A week ago, I wrote that new House Speaker Paul Ryan could solve much of the dysfunction in Washington by moving his family here, encouraging others to do the same and extending the congressional workweek to the standard five days. This would force lawmakers to get to know each other as human beings rather than partisan adversaries, and the result would be a more cooperative, functional legislature.
After reading that, lobbyist Vin Weber, a congressman from Minnesota in the 1980s and 1990s and a member of Republican leadership, suggested another measure: curtail the unlimited congressional travel allowances. This would encourage collegiality in Congress while also getting taxpayers out of financing what amounts to an incumbent protection racket.
“We’re subsidizing their campaigns,” he said. “The impact is these guys spend no time with each other and less quality time doing their jobs, and it contributes enormously to the dysfunction of the Capitol.”
Weber recalled that when he was in Congress, Dan Rostenkowski, the Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Bob Michel, the House Republican leader, would drive together each January from their home state of Illinois — and then drive home together in August, when Congress recessed.
In a statement justifying the two-day-average workweek, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy argued: “This calendar ensures that ‘the People’s House’ always remains in-touch with those back home. Discussing ideas and concerns is a critical function of a responsive, representative democracy, and for this reason, our schedule will continue to provide members considerable time for constituent services in their districts each month.”
Nice try. But what we have now is not responsive democracy but reactive democracy, in which lawmakers answer to parochial and shortsighted views — generally those expressed by the last wealthy donor to buttonhole them — rather than thinking about the national interest or working with colleagues to build a consensus.
“It’s a great irony, really, that by every measurement it looks as if Congress is more out of touch with constituents than ever before,” Weber said, “and yet they’ve been back with their constituents more than they’ve ever been.”
And we pay for this new parochialism in many ways: free parking spaces for lawmakers at Reagan National Airport, discounted government rates for lawmakers, the privilege of booking themselves on multiple flights while regular fliers get bumped. Powerful lawmakers push airlines to schedule convenient flights to their home states and districts; one has been heard to boast about “my plane” on his flights to and from Washington.
A complex formula determines flight allowances based on distance from Washington and other factors. But because lawmakers can move funds from personnel and office budgets, the upshot is their travel home is unlimited.
And what if it were restricted? Surely, tea party types wouldn’t object to eliminating this welfare for lawmakers and ending this taxpayer-subsidized campaigning. Americans of all ideologies can agree that their representatives should spend as much time in the workplace as their countrymen do.
Let’s ground Congress.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.