Does Congress take too many breaks?

David Lightman
McClatchy Washington Bureau

Washington — Congress has no votes this week, even though the government runs out of money next Friday and is expected to hit its debt ceiling soon afterward.

This Thanksgiving Day recess is the second big exodus from Washington for Congress this month. The House and Senate were out of session for Veterans Day the week of Nov. 8. And they were gone for a weeklong break in October.

What this schedule means is that “you get rapid policymaking at the end of the process, where all the deals are struck in the final hours,” said Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget & Policy Center and a former director of research for the National League of Cities in Washington.

The Capitol at dawn in Washington.

“They should be there just doing the regular stuff they’re supposed to do,” said Andrew Lautz, director of federal policy at the National Taxpayers Union.

Lawmakers vigorously defend the schedule.

Margaret Mulkerrin, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called this year “historically productive.”

She cited House passage of the American Rescue Plan, which provided economic relief from COVID-triggered issues, as well as a $1 trillion infrastructure package and last Friday, the $1.75 billion budget and tax bill.

“All of these achievements have been made possible by a robust House schedule with committee work weeks — originally borne out of necessity during the height of the pandemic — that allow House committees to hold hearings and (write) legislation without interruption to continue preparing legislation for Floor consideration,” she said.

In addition, there’s more need, said some experts, for members’ presence and services back home on issues exacerbated by the pandemic, such as immigration issues and the maze of new and expanded federal programs to help people cope with the volatile economy.

Because of such pressing issues back home, “there’s more at stake,” and thus constituents want lawmakers’ help, said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the independent Congressional Management Foundation, which studies Congress.

The Senate formally convened this year Jan. 3, met Jan. 6 and then met again Jan. 20.

It then broke for “district work periods” that included a week in February for Presidents Day, for two weeks in late March and April for Easter and Passover, another week in early May and again around Memorial Day. It took two weeks in July for Independence Day. There was a monthlong August-September recess, a week in October for Columbus Day, and now the two weeks in November.

When the Senate is around, the week’s sessions usually begin at 3 p.m. Monday and end in mid-afternoon on Thursdays.

The schedule is expected to include more weekdays and even weekends in December as deadlines loom.

The House schedule has been somewhat different and has included 15 “committee work weeks.”

Fitch praised those weeks, noting they allow members to attend committee meetings without having to be interrupted for votes.

Seven other weeks are designated as district work periods.

Lawmakers routinely defend the schedule. “I don’t think how long we’re here is necessarily related to how productive we are,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

They say they need to be home. “It’s a strange position to be in where most of your work is away from the place you represent,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. “Sometimes people complain they don’t see you enough at home.”

The practical effort of the on-and-off scheduling is that big decisions can be made without a lot of scrutiny.

“Members usually benefit when a bill has to go through a process,” said Fitch.

When the Senate returns for formal sessions Nov. 29, and the House the next day, the more urgent legislation involves keeping the government funded and preserving its ability to borrow.

Spending is supposed to be contained in a dozen appropriations bills, bills that are the subject of scrutiny and negotiation throughout the year.

Their legislation is supposed to go to the full the House and Senate, which aim to pass bills by Sept. 30, the last day of the fiscal year.

That almost never happens, forcing Congress to pass stopgap legislation. The latest such measure expires Dec. 3.

Congress is expected to again pass a stopgap. If not, most of the government shuts down.

About two weeks later, another deadline looms, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said this week the government would exhaust its authority to borrow Dec. 15. Unless the debt ceiling is lifted, the defaults could seriously rock not only the economy of the U.S., but the world.

But Congress is not scheduled to be around until next week to formally deal with any of this.

That’s probably not going to be a problem, said Cornyn. “Part of it is just the nature of the beast that we kick the can down the road until we run up against a deadline,” he said.

“Then we miraculously get things done. It’s maybe human nature.”

The taxpayers’ union’s Lautz wasn’t sympathetic.

“Let’s not forget they pay members and staff to work on legislation in Washington,” he said.