Anyone seeking a table at Carmine’s Italian restaurant near Capitol Hill on a Tuesday or Wednesday needs to battle a mid-week crush of Congress members and their staff.
But Mondays are far quieter — just like the floor of Congress. There are usually around nine events on a Monday, compared to as many as 30 on a midweek day, says Kelly Fitzgerald, Carmine’s director of special events and catering.
The fact is that members of the U.S. Congress have been spending fewer days working in Washington since the late 2000s, according to a Reuters review of congressional records going back 18 years. Lawmakers increasingly try to cram their legislative work into the middle of the week in Washington and then rush back home.
With pressure to spend more time in their home constituencies, often fund-raising for campaigns, members have less time to attend debates and mingle with other lawmakers.
“In any work setting, if you don’t know your colleagues, it makes it much more difficult to get things done,” said Dan Glickman, who was a Democratic House member from Kansas for 18 years until the mid-1990s and recalls more working days and fuller debates than the current Congress.
“…It makes it more difficult to build relationships,” said Glickman, who was U.S. secretary of agriculture after Congress.
In 2015, the first year of a two-year Congress, the House of Representatives put in 130 working days, the Reuters review found. Compared with the first years of recent Congresses, that number has declined steadily since 2007, when the House worked 153 days — the high since 1998. House members typically meet more often in the first year of a Congress because in the second year they have to run for reelection. This year, an election year, the House calendar foresees 111 working days in Washington, in line with the total in recent election years.
The House cancelled its entire schedule this week after a snowstorm hit the East Coast. The Senate’s annual working days have not risen above 156 since reaching a peak of 188 in 2009.
The decline in working days in recent years has coincided with a slide in Americans’ approval rating for the legislature as the reputation of a “do-nothing” Congress has taken hold.
Since fiscal 1997, Congress has failed every year to enact on time all of the government appropriations bills needed for a full federal budget, the Congressional Research Service said.
More recently, polarized lawmakers often have been unable to find middle ground on pressing issues such as immigration, tax reform and gun safety. As of the end of 2014, about 75 percent of major issues were in deadlock, according to a calculation by Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution think tank.
The Republican-led Congress had a relatively productive year in 2015, fixing a funding formula for Medicare doctors, passing a highway bill and approving fast-track authority for trade deals.
In 2011 and 2013, the total number of bills passed by Congress dipped below triple figures to 90 and 72 respectively. Last year’s Congress managed to enact 113.
Many bills are minor, however, so the total number does not necessarily correspond to productivity.