WASHINGTON (July 27, 2017) – As Congress prepares for its annual August recess, it’s become common for observers to complain that members spend too little time on Capitol Hill. Conventional wisdom holds that our “do-nothing” Congress’ lack of productivity correlates with their excess time outside D.C.

However, a new policy short by R Street Governance Fellow Casey Burgat and Charles Hunt of the University of Maryland challenges these assumptions, finding that Congress’ time spent in Washington has remained remarkably steady, while fingering other causes for the lack of productive legislating.

“Looking back over the past 40 years we actually find that the number of hours spent in session is relatively stable, in both chambers,” Burgat said. “However, during the same period, we notice large increases in confrontation between the parties and drastic cuts to legislative capacity. We argue these are more substantiated rationales for why productivity in Congress has decreased.”

Among the biggest shifts the authors observe since the 1980s is that majority status in Congress has become much more uncertain and competitive, following decades of Republicans perpetually occupying the minority. The shift to a competitive landscape has dampened incentives for compromise on both sides. Also noteworthy is that the number of congressional aides has shrunk 15 percent between 1986 and 2015, while staffing cuts at support agencies like the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office have been even more drastic.

Solutions to the competitiveness and staffing issues are in short supply in such a highly partisan environment, but the authors note that keeping members in Washington for longer periods of time should not be thought of as a silver bullet.

“Spending more time in Washington and in session is likely to foster better relationships between and among members,” Hunt said. “But it is important to point out that mandating a five-day workweek will likely do little to correct the incentives that have produced the decline in legislative productivity seen in recent congresses.”

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