Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Do members of Congress work hard?

WASHINGTON — Congress worked more in 2011 and 2012 than it ever has — but it produced little legislation of note.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan has been in office not even a week, but he’s already bashing Congress’s workload.

The House convened Thursday, chose a speaker, voted five times then took a week-long recess. The Senate is out until Jan. 21, and newly sworn in lawmakers like Nolan have taken to the press to bemoan the light early schedule.

On CBS’s "Face the Nation" Sunday, Nolan said Congress worked 48 weeks a year during his first tenure in the House. That’s down to 32 weeks now. He told MSNBC on Monday, “You hear the statement that everybody’s campaigning and nobody’s governing. That’s like literally true.”

Rep. Rick Nolan blasted Congress on 'Face the Nation' Sunday
Rep. Rick Nolan blasted Congress on 'Face the Nation' Sunday for not working hard enough.

Nolan told Minnesota reporters on a Monday press call: “We’re not working four or five days a week, like everybody else does in America. The fact is, Congress is not governing.”

Nolan’s basic complaint is one he’s been sharing since the campaign: Lawmakers aren’t spending enough time in Washington, and when they’re here, they’re not building the relationships necessary to produce good legislation.

An analysis of congressional data shows Nolan to be wrong on the first point, but possibly right on the second: Congress spent more days in session during the 112th Congress than any going back 33 years, but it managed to produce the fewest new laws in recent history.

More days, about the same roll call votes

In 2011 and 2012, the House was in session 327 days and the Senate, 323, totaling the most legislative days since 1980. 

Source: Resume of Congressional Activity, The Congressional Record

There are some caveats to those numbers. First of all, some of those “days,” especially on the Senate side, are short and largely procedural: the chamber is gaveled in, a few speeches are given and the chamber is gaveled out for the day. Also, Congress was in session almost the entire month of December trying to pass a fiscal cliff agreement. Most years, Congress takes December off, so the 112th is unique in that sense.

But last session’s members voted about as often as their predecessors, as well: Between the House and Senate, lawmakers voted 2,089 times, fewer than the 111th and 110th Congresses, but more than the three before them.

But fewer laws than ever before

The problem, of course, is that most of those legislative days and roll call votes were for naught. Congress only sent President Obama 239 bills to eventually sign into law, the fewest of any Congress in recent memory. Making matters worse, a not-insignificant amount of those bills were of little substance, like the 40 or so new laws that simply rename post offices.

Article continues after advertisement

Tom Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, said output, not overall workload, is the true measure of a Congress, and by those standards, “you can argue it’s the worst Congress ever.”

“[Congress is] known for all the brinksmanship on the budget,” he said, referring to congressional battles over the federal budget and the debt limit in 2011 and the just-concluded fiscal cliff fight. “It’s been ideological warfare instead of problem solving.”

For now, Mann said the problem lies with congressional Republicans, who have undertaken a strategy of “all-out opposition” to plans pushed by Democrats from the White House on down.

That wasn’t always the case. Democrats, when they were in the minority, helped President George W. Bush pass proposals like No Child Left Behind and tax reform in the early 2000s, Mann said. And the Republican-controlled 106th Congress passed 580 bills President Bill Clinton would eventually signed into law during the last two years his term.

Off days?

Most congressional recesses are technically “constituent work weeks” during which time lawmakers ostensibly interact with constituents back home.

Sheldon Anderson, the district director for Nolan’s 8th District predecessor Chip Cravaack, said lawmakers get from the work weeks what they put into them.

“They were really never any off weeks,” he said. “It was all about constituent services. I’d pick him up at the airport, we’d hit the road for three or four days. … Chip always enjoyed being in district more than being in Washington.”

Take just the first few days of this week, for example. Sen. Al Franken held an event on school safety in Eagan on Monday. Rep. Erik Paulsen is reportedly out of the district, but travelling with a congressional delegation in Asia, and Nolan himself is traipsing between St. Paul and Duluth meeting with state officials, according to his staff.

“It can be a vacation if you want it to be,” Anderson said, “or you can get out, do town halls do as much con outreach as you can, and that’s what we always strived for.”

Devin Henry can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry