Shifting Priorities and Gears in Congress

Kathryn Lopez
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Posted: Dec 13, 2010 2:09 PM
Shifting Priorities and Gears in Congress

"Missed birthdays, games, and plays end in tears," one congressional wife and mother of young children tells me, delighted by the "certainty of the calendar" for the next Congress. Hers is a reality that all too many parents -- in and out of Congress -- know is often unavoidable. But sometimes it can be managed. Seventy-six of the 87 new Republican members of Congress have children, 233 in total, a majority of whom are under 18. And they've got a leadership trying to make these scheduling problems a little less pervasive.

Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, has announced a schedule for the next Congress that looks something like what House Republicans have been promising for going on a year now. It's not about making life easier, but rather a little more efficient -- just a little saner -- on a fairly reliable calendar.

It's one of many practical responses to the now inarguable notion that Washington just doesn't work as efficiently as it should and could. "Poor time management is a symptom of a bloated, inefficient, hyperactive federal government," Gary Andres, vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide, who served in the first Bush White House, tells me. "The incoming majority's reforms grasp this reality and send an important signal," This, along with other promised reforms, is "about listening to America, working smarter, and realizing naming another Post Office or creating a new Washington program won't improve our country's future."

The goals are: the eradication of late nights, missed planes and unread bills. In theory, the congressperson benefits, his or her family benefits, and the constituents benefit.

"Shortening the number of weeks in the session calendar (from 36 to 32 weeks) is a good idea that will lessen travel pressure for members," Chuck Donovan, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a longtime Washington hand, recently told me. "The new calendar should permit more family-oriented members not to uproot their wives and children because of the assurance of a week home per month." By spending more time at home, members will also be in better touch with the folks they represent, instead of waiting until August to get feedback from their constituents.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, is encouraged by the move: "As one who served in office and had to balance all the competing demands of family, having some certainty in schedule would have been a big help." He adds, "This is important, not just for them personally, but for the conservative movement ... These changes are vital to keep the conservative majority."

"The trade-off," Donovan notes, "is that the actual work week when Congress is in session will be a day longer. If that helps members focus on and resolve legislation efficiently" -- like passing budget and appropriations bills on time -- "disasters like weekend sessions and lame-duck work might be avoided."

This regularized schedule -- as predictable as one can make it, on paper -- is about more than averting family disasters. It's about focus; it's about due diligence. As one leadership aide argues, "This structure also makes more time for committees to get their work done -- instead of being interrupted by floor votes and other competing priorities -- which means more time for proper oversight and legislating."

One veteran Hill cynic doesn't put much stock in the schedule change: "At the end of the day, these schedules and other process changes are not of great consequence -- the ultimate test will be whether the American people believe they are getting results -- and results that they think are addressing the problems of the country."

In addition to the 112th Congress's first, structural moves, more can and should be done in the long term. Donovan adds: "Actually passing less legislation and restoring authority to the state capitals on a host of issues -- like education -- might be even more effective in keeping Congress's work habits family-friendly ... Congress has bitten off more than it can chew."

Bravo. Show up in town with your Constitution in hand, and you might remember that all solutions do not hail from Washington.

Donovan, speaking in a personal capacity, wistfully imagines a truly family-oriented Congress with "voluntarily time-limited service. Conservatives should be trying to undo government before 24/7 entanglement with it undoes them."

First things first? As one senior Republican aide puts it, "a congressional calendar shouldn't facilitate isolation and insulation." This calendar is more conducive to the duties of a representative -- representing hard-working Americans who try their best to not let any priorities fall through the cracks.