The Do-Nothingest Congress

Nearly sixty years ago President Harry S. Truman infamously derided the 1947-1948 Congress as the "Do-Nothing Congress" for meeting for only 108 days. Well, Harry must be rolling in his grave, because the current U.S. House of Representatives (now on their annual August break) is projected to spend a mere 79 days in session in 2006.

This is largely due to their extended "district work periods" in which they go home and meet with constituents, campaign and fit in a few rounds of golf. While most Americans returned from their holiday vacation in the first week of January, the House took nearly the entire month off, commencing the session on January 31st. In February, the House met for only 47 hours, an average work week for many Americans. While the year still has over 4 months to go, the calendar leaves a maximum of only 16 additional days for the House to complete its business. Meanwhile, the Senate is also projected to have a light workload this year, devoting only 125 days to legislative business, a 34-day drop from 2005.

As part of Congresspedia's continuing development of articles on how Congress works, we've looked back at the last dozen years of congressional calendars, which are set by the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader. You can see the results at our new article on congressional calendars, which includes this interesting chart:

Congressional calendar chart August 2006

So, if you're looking for a taskmaster Speaker, look no further than Newt Gingrich, who kept the House in session for 183 days in 1995 as he was implementing the Contract with America following the 1994 "Republican Revolution," an increase of 59 days from the previous year.

Now, while many have expressed displeasure with the work habits of the 2006 Congress, defenders of the part-time Congress range from small-government advocates to those who believe that members should spend a majority of their time at home interacting with constituents. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) is one of these believers. He stated, "Part of our job is here, but part of our job is to see our constituents. And it is an election year, and people want to see more of their constituents, and their constituents probably want to see more of their members."

Consistent with Boehner's claim, the House did in fact devote several days throughout the year as "district-work periods." None of these, however, fell in January, November, or December. In addition, very few were planned for August, September, or October, leaving the House with the type of recess that would make any schoolchild very jealous.


It is an interesting perspective you have put forth with which to judge Congress, but the simplicity with which you judge obscures recognition of some successes and accomplishments that Congress might well deserve. Depicting the whole Congress as a ‘do nothing’ Congress based purely on the number of days they went to work in the Capitol overlooks a number of realities about the job they do (or are sent to Washington to do). If the number of days at work was an indication of success then anyone working anywhere would be successful based on the number of days they worked, period. Of course we know that some people accomplish more than others in the same time span and not everyone is capable of accomplishing identical work under the same circumstances. So there is a bit of a flaw in your logic: it may not be appropriate to look at Congress’ attendance schedule to determine if it has accomplished anything. They are politicians and have the responsibility of meeting with and reporting to their constituents so the district work period that you seem to question is, if they are doing their job, part of the job. A Representative may have to find a way to report to 500,000 people and may have only fifty miles in one direction or another to travel to those meetings. A fairly awesome task but think about a Senator who has to traverse the whole state to make contacts. One of our Senators in Florida, for example, was in my immediate area twice last spring alone. One visit was a political fundraiser and the other was a boat trip to observe and sample degraded estuary water-a matter he brought up recently in a bill the Senate was considering. Figure his travel time to and from his home office (4 hours) the time at the fundraiser (4 or 5 hours) and the time on the river (3 or 4 hours) along with residual meetings, press questions and speeches and you can see that the Senator picked up a couple of days work addressing problems in this area of the State alone. In the course of a 30 day recess do they all spend every day meeting and greeting? Of course not. They might even slip in a day or two of golf as many people do on their time off. On a purely statistical level you might inform your readers that the Senate in particular can meet for days on end and even weeks but does so such that all of that time is considered one day despite it spanning days or weeks and you might consider as work days time when there is no floor action but plenty of committee action. Finally, considering that they don’t all go home when the legislative business for the day is completed, there are plenty of meetings, fundraisers and other activities in Washington that continue on into the evenings and weekends. Days can run long so the stats you relied on may not take into account the totals of a few 12 or 16 hour days or longer each week adding to the time on the job. My greatest concern with the accuracy of your depiction is that it does not take into account quality and volume of work accomplished. Without digging through pages of statistics and relying on my memory of past Congresses, it has been fairly consistent going back to the 103rd Congress, and perhaps further back, that around 4,000 bills are introduced each year, give or take, and usually 200 to 300 become public law. Now, you could argue that the new laws have no merit and therefore nothing of substance was accomplished but then you would find (in the current political scenario) anywhere from 30% to 70% of the American people disagreeing with you. Finally, I don’t know where you are physically located or have spent time but if you did spend some time on Capitol Hill you might have noticed it is far from a lazy, do-nothing atmosphere. Meet and interview a few legislators and you might see the level of energy they try to maintain. For an outside, authoritative conclusion of Member’s energy level you might want to read the late Meg Greenfield’s book Washington in which she makes a pretty good case from her decades on the Washington Post and dealing with Members, that most who aspire to Capitol Hill are the over-achievers in life, not slackers. Robert McElroy, Publisher

I would love to take off a whole month for the holidays to play golf every day! This is not fair at all.

Full time pay for part time "work". Absolutely scandalous. More time with constituents? Yeah right, that's an euphemism for campaigning or doing nothing, at home, versus in DC. The number one job/priority for these bottom feeders is to pass legislation that corporations favor and then to get a job from them when their done in CONgress. Their job is anointing the heads of criminal corporations. 120 something days of talking, wow quite the contribution. You bust your ass; they ride it into the sun set, partying like a rock star...