Do members of Congress work hard?

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.

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

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 01/09/2013 - 10:31 am.

    Incomplete information

    It seems to me you stopped short of reporting a full accounting of what Representative Nolan found so concerning. From

    “By Nolan’s estimate, the average ‘call time,’ is about 30 hours a week. ‘The time that people are spending now raising money and campaigning is time Congress used to spend governing,’ he said.”

    Presenting this as only a “days in session” issue (and finding dissenting statistics based only on that measure) strikes me as disingenuous.

    Rep. Nolan is making a valid point. Please respect that by responding to it fully and accurately.

    • Submitted by Devin Henry on 01/09/2013 - 04:09 pm.

      Lots of metrics to use

      Hey Pat,

      Yeah, you’re right, I left out a bit of what Nolan said. I was looking to assess his statement about lawmakers’ time in Washington and the work they do while here. The best three best metrics I could find to do that were days in session, roll call votes and laws passed.

      I think that last part, laws passed, is especially important. I tend agree with Mann: you really have to judge the effectiveness of a Congress by how many laws it produces. That, more-so than time worked tells the story — which is why Nolan can be wrong about how many days and weeks lawmakers work while correct about his underlying argument about congressional ineffectiveness. And that’s why I included both numbers.

      The Resume of Congressional Activity, where I got this data, is trove of information for a political nerd, and probably worth a visit:


  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/09/2013 - 11:51 am.

    Hard working

    They work incredibly hard often to no effect. Quite honestly, I don’t know why anyone would want the job.

  3. Submitted by John Reinan on 01/09/2013 - 12:10 pm.

    They spend half their time fundraising

    The Huffington Post obtained a PowerPoint that was shown to new members of Congress by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It recommends that they spend 4 hours a day on the phone raising money.

    The story also contains a thoroughly depressing account of how the Congresscritters troop across the street to little row houses and offices where they make their fundraising calls (because they can’t do them on official government property).

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 01/09/2013 - 01:48 pm.

      This American Life

      Ira Glass also did a pretty effective program on this subject last year on “This American Life”:

      It’s an aspect of being a legislator that’s slowly taken over a huge chunk of their daily time, and I’d bet most Americans have no idea how many hours their elected officials are spending on the phone each day mooching for dollars.

      I find it pretty disgusting, and I’m glad Rep. Nolan is trying to draw attention to it.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/09/2013 - 01:11 pm.

    Les Miserables

    Sure, it’s a miserable life. A friend of mine ran for Congress a while back and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. Their lives become nothing more than fund raising and plane trips. And you have to be in Congress about thirty years before anyone pays attention at all.

  5. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/09/2013 - 01:29 pm.

    Full time job?

    These positions were not originally intended to be a full-time job, let alone a career. Yet, they are being treated as such. If they’re a full-time job, I’d expect more hours spent on actually doing the job, including reading, researching, and understanding the bills on the floor. Quite frankly, I don’t know that we need MORE legislation, just better legislation. They don’t have to spend all their time voting and writing bills (so I wouldn’t consider the number of bills passed a measurement of their work), but they sure as heck should know the facts. Reading some of the crap that escapes so many of their mouths, I know that many of them are completely ignorant, or are simply counting on their constituents to be.

  6. Submitted by Carole Heffernan on 01/09/2013 - 02:23 pm.

    More Data

    It might be wise to not include any of the days most of them were gone but the sessions were gaveled in and immediately adjourned to prevent the President from making recess appointments.

    It might also be prudent to reduce the days where the only thing done was to name Post Offices and/or introduce another version of bills that had already been passed and ignored by the Senate, like 33 bills to eliminate AbamaCare.

    When you consider that under speaker Pelosi there were 400 bills sent to the senate without the drama that is a daily event with this group of clowns they were really non-productive and now they are scheuled to work even less.

    Constituent Days? Maybe for some. I haven’t found John Kline in his office even once during the Constituent Days but I suspect the people of the 2nd District are not who he considers his constituents.

  7. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 01/09/2013 - 02:47 pm.

    I love Warren Buffett’s wry solution to our ineffectual Congress. “I could end the deficit in five minutes. You just pass a law that says that any time there’s a deficit of more than three percent of GDP all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for reelection.” He may have been joking, but perhaps there’s a bit of sense there.

  8. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/09/2013 - 10:06 pm.

    Solution: exclusive public financing…

    …of federal election campaigns – and life imprisonment for political corruption.

    Why such harsh punishment? Because there are 300 million victims, that’s why.

    Of course, there is that matter of the Supreme Court’s regard of money as speech, but that can be overcome – not easily – but it can be overcome.

    The public as a whole should be the only interest group the Congress has to answer to.

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