Ideology Aside, House and Senate Physically Out of Sync

Ideology aside, differing schedules put senators, representatives miles apart.

ByAmy Bingham
June 27, 2011, 5:01 PM

WASHINGTON, June 28, 2011 -- There are 25 work days between today and financial apocalypse. That's when the U.S. government exhausts emergency borrowing authority and the nation's debt ceiling must be raised. But between now and then are only 12 days when both chambers of Congress will be in session.

The Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate have proven to be miles apart ideologically when it comes to their goals on debt reduction, but the two chambers have also been furlongs away physically for much of this year's legislative session.

In the nearly six months that Congress has been in session, there have been only 59 days when both chambers met for legislative business at the same time, an unusually low number according to some congressional scholars. That means so far this year the flags flew simultaneously over both chambers about 65 percent of the time.

Normally the House and Senate take joint breaks around holidays such as the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Veterans' Day. Not this year. The House is out this week for a break leading up to Independence Day while the Senate takes its holiday break next week.

It will be the same story in November when the House takes its Veterans' Day leave the week of the holiday and the Senate takes its the week after.

"It's very unusual," said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "You have a Congress where the House and Senate are completely out of sync. Usually there is a very substantial amount of overlap."

But this year, new House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, whose office sets the House schedule, said in a Dec. 8, 2010, letter to his fellow representatives that his intent was to create certainty by publishing the full calendar before the start of the session, increase efficiency and productivity by grouping working days together, and guaranteeing at least one five-day constituent work week every month.

There was no mention of taking the Senate's schedule into consideration. The Senate did not make any amendments to its calendar following Cantor's announcement of the House's schedule.

The houses are not meant to work in tandem. But the scheduling has created some difficulty for debt talks, which stalled late last week.

"The image of Wall Street people pulling their hair out and members kind of back in their districts talking about agriculture subsidies strikes you as pretty strange," said Sean Theriault, a congressional scholar at the University of Texas.

It will take until the last possible moment "before the world collapses" for lawmakers to strike a deal on the debt ceiling, Thierault said.

A group of about 30 protestors from No Labels, which advocates for bipartisan cooperation, took to the streets outside the Capitol building Monday to urge members of Congress to stay in session until they reach deal to raise the debt ceiling.

"The American people are tired of partisan gridlock and August 2 is fast approaching. Our elected officials should stay on the job until a deal is done. No deal - No break!" said David Walker, a No Labels founding member.

The House is currently on a 10-day break and the Senate breaks on Friday for 10 days. Two weeks before the default deadline, representatives will be in their home districts for what they call a "constituent work week."

"It's just unacceptable for them to take this much time off," said Josh Zeitlin, a No Labels spokesman. "We definitely think that the American people are sending a clear message that the fiscal crisis is a huge deal and Congress needs to get the job done."

Vice President Biden complained about the conflicting schedules in May after leaving one of the bicameral, bipartisan debt talks that he was spearheading on the hill.

"It is a little inconvenient, totally unintended. The House is out one week, the Senate is out another week," Biden told reporters May 24.

House negotiators stayed in Washington during one of their constituent work weeks and senators involved in the talks stayed through one of their breaks so that the talks would not be postponed because of the differing schedules.

Things haven't gotten any better in the meantime. The latest round of negotiations were derailed last week after the two Republican members, Cantor and Jon Kyl, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, walked out over disagreements about raising taxes.

President Obama called the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate separately to the White House today to try to break the impasse.

Not everyone is concerned by the conflicting vacation schedules. Senate Democrats have not been able to bring much legislation to the floor anyway, said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institute.

It is virtually impossible to reach any agreement that will be filibuster-proof in the Senate and also pass in the House because the two chambers are so far apart ideologically, he said.

"It's not as if there are all these other matters that with coordinated schedules would be getting passed," Mann said. "Everything is hanging on threats of the government shutting down and defaulting on the government debt."

But when it comes to raising the debt ceiling, the traditional legislative process of committee hearings, bill mark-ups and floor debate has been scrapped in favor of small, closed-door negotiations among the leadership.

"For the most part this is high-stakes, highly centralized negotiation," Mann said. "Frankly the full memberships aren't doing anything. This is all about a handful of people engaged in negotiations to deal with a default threat, and I don't think coordinated schedules would make it one bit easier to solve this problem."

Therefore, the scholars said, the out-of-sync schedules will have little effect on whether lawmakers reach a deficit reduction deal in time.

"It's an interesting thing to speculate and think about, but I don't think it's going to be the difference between them compromising and finding the solution or not," Theriault said.

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