May 12, 2006 — -- Members of Congress know the Washington-area airports very well. Most members use them twice a week, arriving for work late Tuesday and scurrying back to their home states on Thursday. Congress is on schedule to meet fewer days this year than any Congress since 1948 -- the year President Truman campaigned against what he called the "do-nothing Congress."
"They call it the Tuesday to Thursday Club," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. "That means you get here Tuesday night, you have a few easy votes, you vote on Wednesday and then you go back home Thursday afternoon. And that, believe it or not, is considered a work week in Washington."
Rank-and-file members of Congress earn $165,200 a year, and this year for the first time they took off for a St. Patrick's Day holiday.
Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, said voters wonder why he spends so much time in Houston instead of Washington. "I've been hearing from people saying they see me more than they do their city council member," Green said.
He said that is one reason Congress is held in low esteem, adding, "poll numbers for Congress are dismally low, in fact lower than the president's." A recent Associated Press poll found that only 25 percent of the country approves of the job Congress is doing.
"What first caught my attention was seeing that the House was going to take the entire month of January off and then be here basically three days in February," Congress watcher Norm Ornstein from the American Enterprise Institute said.
He added, "It's stunning to see how much time off there is, how little time is being spent in Washington doing any of the people's business."
Even members from Hawaii jet home for long weekends, unthinkable not so long ago. Under both Democratic and Republican leadership, the work schedule has gradually decreased: In the '60s and '70s, Congress met on average 162 days a year; in the '80s and '90s, 139 days. This year the House is expected to meet 71 days.
Of course, some voters think that is a good thing. "For those who really believe in limited government, then there's virtue in being away from Washington," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "It's not all bad that we spend less time here. A lot of what we do and a lot of the disdain people have for Washington is because we do too much, not too little."
Flake broke into a hearty laugh when he said, "I still believe that if people understood exactly what we do here, they'd probably demand we take more time off."
But even the conservative Flake said Congress has failed to spend the time needed for oversight of federal agencies. He worries that in the rush to get out of town each week, Congress does not pay enough attention to how the government spends the taxpayers' money.
Ornstein also said he believes Congress is failing in its oversight responsibilities. He said if Congress had paid more attention to FEMA in recent years, then the disaster agency would have been more prepared to deal with Hurricane Katrina.
Important bills are now rushed through Congress, resulting in sloppy legislation, Ornstein said. Among the examples of such legislation, he said, are the Medicare prescription drug bill that perplexed many senior citizens and the bankruptcy reform bill that has come back to haunt Katrina victims faced with ruin.
Ornstein and other critics also believe the government's failure to deal efficiently with Katrina can be blamed partly on congressional haste in setting up the new Department of Homeland Security, which had overall responsibility for disaster relief.
"When I go back home to the Rotary Club and tell them we're meeting so few days, sometimes they think that's good news," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. "But it's really bad news for America because we're simply not doing our jobs. They're paying us full salaries, but we're not working full time."
Many in Congress point out that they do some work when they go back home -- they meet with constituents and learn what the voters really want. But as money has become more important in election campaigns, many House members and senators also spend a great deal of time in their states raising funds for re-election.
Congress has accomplished some things this year, perhaps most notably this week passing tax cut legislation. But all in all, this has not been a productive year, leading to Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott's recent comment, "We haven't done anything worth a toot in three months."
Because Congress spends less time in Washington, members spend less time with one another. Gone are the days when members from rival parties and factions had plenty of time to socialize together, perhaps in the evening to partake of a little "bourbon and branch water." Those informal get-togethers were often crucial to reaching compromises on important, sometimes historic legislation.
This Congress can still avoid the "do-nothing" label. But it has precious little time to do it. An immigration bill is a top priority for President Bush and many on Capitol Hill.
The trouble is finding a compromise that can pass both houses and get the president's signature. That is a time-consuming process, but so far Congress is sticking pretty much to its three-day-a-week routine. And Congress does not want to deal with complicated legislation this fall because this is an election year.
Green said voters will be watching. "They would like to see our work product improved," he said, "and if that includes an extra day a week, so be it."