When Congress is on Break, Crises Can Wait
Policy + Politics

When Congress is on Break, Crises Can Wait

Legislators rarely work a full day, but they still earn $2,175 a day

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Secretary of State John Kerry was slamming Russian President Vladimir Putin when he said “You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th century fashion,” but he could have just as well been talking about the U.S. Congress, which is still operating at a leisurely pace better suited to a bygone era.

With international crises crashing around President Obama’s head and a legislative hopper groaning from stacks of unfinished business,  members of Congress are rarely on hand to respond to crises in real time, offer reassuring words from the floor of the House or Senate, or publicly signal a sense of engagement to unfolding events at home or abroad.

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Much of this stems from long standing partisan gridlock and bickering over foreign and domestic policy, and congressional leaders’ long standing tendency to defer to the president in times of foreign crisis – and then blame him if things don’t work out.

Although Congress and the president share authority over foreign policy under the Constitution, as columnist George Will has noted, President Obama has exerted inordinate power over foreign policy “only because Congress, over many years, has become too supine to wield its constitutional powers.”

“For whatever reason, they’re not asserting their authority,” said Chris Edelson, assistant professor of government at American University. “Two things jump to mind: This misperception that it’s the president’s role to control foreign affairs and then that it may be politically strategic to let the president act and then kind of put their responsibility on the president.”

But another reason is lawmakers’ slavish devotion to a legislative calendar that keeps them in Washington for less than half the year.

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Just a couple of examples:

  • When Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March, there was a practically unanimous call for a bill creating a package of financial aid for the Ukrainian government, which was suffering from severe financial instability. Arguments between the White House and the Republicans over rules changes for the International Monetary Fund delayed the process for several weeks, but after Senate Democrats dropped the IMF provisions from the bill, it passed the Senate with a 78-17 bipartisan majority.

    Yet with Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s eastern border and the prospect of the Crimean Peninsula being annexed, the House left town for one of its typically long weekends. Returning four days later, members finally passed the resolution.

  • Last year, after weeks of blasting the Obama administration for its lack of urgency in responding to the mounting civil war in Syria, Congress demanded that Obama seek congressional support of military strikes or other action. On August 31, the president did exactly that, sending a draft resolution approving the use of force to Congress.

House Speaker John Boehner, one of the loudest voices in calling for Obama to define U.S. policy on Syria, had recently sent Obama a letter saying, “Syria is one of the few places where the immediate national security interests of the United States so visibly converge with broader U.S. security interests and objectives.”

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Boehner said he welcomed the proposal and would take it up with Congress…ten days later, after lawmakers returned from their five-week summer break. To their credit, some lawmakers fought to have Congress recalled for a special session, but the war in Syria turned out to be less urgent than an extra week of recess. 

On Monday, Congress begins the second week of a two-week Easter-Passover holiday recess on track to be away from Washington this year for 253 days – or a full two thirds of calendar 2014.  That leaves just 112 actual working days in D.C. for the entire year, according to the legislative calendar assembled by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).

This means they will be away the entire month of August, all but 10 days of September, all but two days of October – in the run-up to the all -important mid-term elections – and all but seven days in November, before cruising through a final eight days of work in December. 

The House and Senate usually begin their weeks around 2 p.m. Monday. Lawmakers usually hold their first votes Monday evening -- 5:30 p.m. in the Senate and 6:30 p.m. in the House, according to The Washington Post. In a typical week, members of the House and Senate work only two full days: Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  When either chamber meets on Thursday, it's usually done as early as late morning and usually no later than 3 p.m. so lawmakers can get out of town by Thursday evening.  Friday votes are very rare.

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Congress has come by its “do-nothing” sobriquet honestly, and was in session for just 126 days last year.

For this, members of Congress are paid an annual salary of $174,000 while Speaker John Boehner receives $223,500. House and Senate members and their leaders, of course, insist that they do a lot more during the frequent recesses, when they return to their states or districts to meet with constituents, hold hearings, or go on fact-finding missions across the globe at taxpayer expense. 

“I think it’s disgraceful,” said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution. “But what’s even more disgraceful is absence of any agenda in the House of seriousness or consequence. The calendar reflects the fact there’s nothing the Speaker or Majority Leader will allow to go forward that has any chance of being responsive to any issues that are up. Just having them back with the same sort of partisan posture of the majority in the House would make no difference. “

“Think of the time in Washington as being an effect or a symptom – not a cause – of the problem.”

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Even when they’re in town, most lawmakers must spend a large chunk of their time raising money, including frequent trips across the street to nearby Democratic and Republican Party headquarters to speak on the phone with deep-pocketed donors in a process widely referred to as “dialing for dollars.” (It would be illegal to have those conversations in a Congressional office.)

While disapproving of a congressional calendar that keeps lawmakers away from work two thirds of the year, congressional experts argue that that is merely a symptom of the larger problem of partisan gridlock and the inability of Republicans and Democrats to agree on any major issues or tactics.

“If Congress really wanted to assert itself, they'd do it,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.” Planes, trains, and automobiles work better than ever. It has nothing to do with their schedule, and everything to do with the deep polarization that divides the parties on just about everything.”

“There's another factor, too,” he added. “Americans are gun-shy after Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as earlier generations did after Korea and Vietnam, contemporary Americans understand that there is really no such thing as "Mission Accomplished". Grievances pile up and shadow wars are endless. We want to focus on a weak economy at home and other pressing domestic issues. It's cyclical, of course. But there's nothing much politically to be gained by members of either party in pushing for foreign involvements.” 

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Whether lawmakers’ absence from Washington is a symptom or a cause of legislative dysfunction, the inescapable fact remains that when important business needs to get done, it can’t happen with lawmaker shaking the trees for campaign cash in districts across the country. In times of emergency, there ought to be a way to require lawmakers to engage with the nation’s problems.

Of course, the president is empowered to summon Congress back to work in emergency session – although that authority is used sparingly for fear of riling the opposition or frightening the country. In times of crisis, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders are in contact with the administration or called to the White House for briefings or consultation. 

Another possibility might be the creation of a bi-partisan commission, made up of senior members of both Houses of Congress, with the authority to call Congress back into session in exigent circumstances – say, for instance, when Russian armies are on the march.

It could be made up of the chairs of key committees, such as Foreign Relations, Armed Services, Intelligence, and Homeland Security, all of whom tend to be senior enough to push back against resistance from House and Senate leadership. They should be granted the authority to confer by phone when not in Washington, and to compel the House and Senate to meet by a majority vote of the members available.

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