People of all stripes have more than enough to dislike about the performance of the modern Congress. The Gang of 535, who are returning only today from Thanksgiving recess for only five days in chambers together before leaving for the year, are too partisan and inefficient. But regardless of the fact that they were in session only 126 days in 2013, there one thing that America’s Senators and Representatives are, on the whole, decidedly not.
You don’t get to be a member of Congress by sleeping till noon and bingeing on Parenthood and The Simpsons. Anybody who has ever been on a campaign trail for a few days or sat in a congressional office for more than 15 minutes knows that these people are, almost without exception, workaholics of extraordinary stamina. When they’re not in session, they’re in meetings, being briefed, raising money, speaking to reporters and holding town halls.
Still, the notion of a Congress of slackers persists largely because the world’s most powerful legislative body hasn’t done much legislating of late. Even as reforms related to immigration, gun ownership, personal privacy and military sexual assault weigh heavily on the American mind, Congress can’t even agree on whether to name an ugly mountain in Vegas for Ronald Reagan. They’ve passed just 55 bills into law so far in 2013, on track to easily be less productive than the 88 shoved through in the post–World War II low-watermark year of 1995. With little exception, these facts are noted alongside another seemingly related data point, that Congress was “off” more than 230 days out of the year, depending on the chamber. The 2014 calendar, as issued by House majority leader Eric Cantor, has even fewer days in session scheduled.
One has absolutely nothing to do with the other. This is a Congress at loggerheads on everything important. That’s how we, as an American electorate, made them. It’s a systemic issue, one that hopefully a few more elections and perhaps some redistricting can wring out, not having them sit in their fancy chambers talking past one another more.
D.C. dysfunction isn’t caused by the number of days they’re in session. It’s caused by the harsh, vituperous political culture in which members are on edge about appearing even cordial with colleagues with whom they disagree. The former Republican National Committee chair Frank Fahrenkopf, whose biography I am working on, often tells me the root of the problem is that most members go home most weekends and thus don’t bother to socialize or get to know their philosophical sparring partners as human beings. That, more than the weeks of recess all over the calendar, explains the mistrust and hostility that has led to inertia.
Fahrenkopf was no political weakling. He led the GOP for six years in the 1980s, engaging in hand-to-hand combat as the mastermind behind Reagan’s re-election. Even so, he also became lifelong personal friends and frequent collaborator with his counterpart, the Democratic National Committee chair Chuck Manatt. Manatt’s family even asked Fahrenkopf to eulogize him when he died in 2011. Can you imagine Maxine Waters and Ted Cruz even grabbing a latte together? Instead of clamoring for more days in session, maybe we should be gunning for mandatory coffee breaks where Congressmen and Congresswomen on either side of the aisle actually have to make small talk with one another.