Amid partisan battles over President Donald Trump‘s cabinet nominees, Republican congressional leaders are threatening to make members work weekends to get the president’s confirmations finalized. While these threats largely are a response to Democratic stalling tactics, expanding Congress’ work week actually would be a good idea from a policy perspective, as well.
The last several decades have seen an immense growth in the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy, all at a time in which congressional capacity and oversight have dwindled.
Currently, the executive branch comprises 180 agencies with 4.1 million employees and a yearly budget of $3.9 trillion. For comparison, Congress and its support staff max out at a mere 30,000 employees and a fraction of the executive branch budget: $4.5 billion.
The discrepancy can be seen in the amount of legislative activity each branch engages in: Agencies issue 4,000 new rules annually, whereas Congress is often lucky to pass 50 significant laws in a year.
As a result, a severe knowledge gap has developed between these two supposedly co-equal branches of government. House members are elected to two-year terms and senators to six-year terms, and all are expected to oversee and manage executive agency officials who have spent their entire careers embedded in the nitty-gritty policy minutiae of everything from financial regulation to nuclear safety.
As a result, congressional “oversight” too often devolves into politically charged hearings hastily convened in the immediate aftermath of some government scandal. Far rarer are the inquiries that see deliberative legislators tracking the day-to-day functioning of administrative agencies.
Congress’ current work schedule only exacerbates this problem.
Compared to the executive branch’s “perpetual motion machine” — in which agencies function 52 weeks a year and are constantly pumping out new regulations — Congress continues to convene on a Tuesday-through-Thursday schedule in which its members are only in Washington for about one-third of the year.
According to the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Healthy Congress Index, the number of working days in Congress has declined significantly in recent years. House of Representative working days fell from 247 in 1995 to 227 in 2015, and Senate working days fell from 320 to 262. Both chambers fall far short of the 330 days the center recommends for a healthy Congress.
Worse yet, congressional members and staff are often forced to dedicate disproportionate time toward meeting with constituents, raising money or working in home-state district offices, rather than studying policy issues in Washington. No doubt part of the reason for this is fear of being seen as “out of touch” if they spend too much time in Washington. But at a time when Congress’ approval ratings are at all-time lows, it seems clear that voters would look favorably on a more productive and engaged Congress.
To fix the problem, Congress needs to dispense with the fiction of the amateur legislator who, Cincinnatus-style, can lay down his plow and swoop into Washington for three days a week and “govern with pure horse-sense.” Congressmen cannot be expected to exercise effective oversight when they lack the time and resources to study the complex regulatory systems they are charged with monitoring.
Congress should instead commit to a more rigorous work schedule: something along the lines of working five days a week for three weeks out of every five. To be sure, Congress won’t be able to fix all its problems by simply extending its workweek (it also should consider expanding its support staff) but doing so would be a good down payment on further reforms.
Asking employees to increase their workload or time spent at the office is never an easy sell, but Congress has a constitutional duty to reassert its role as our country’s first branch of government. Working longer weeks in an effort to better check the ever-growing federal bureaucracy would be a good place to start.
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