Congress Is Not a Drive-Thru Window

Debra J. Saunders
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Posted: Dec 02, 2014 12:01 AM
Congress Is Not a Drive-Thru Window

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell won't become majority leader until next month, and already he is cracking the whip. He's making senators work on Fridays -- or at least they're supposed to work on Fridays, as the Senate will be in session.

Roll Call first billed the Fridays-included-week as part of an "aggressive schedule." A five-day workweek may not seem all that rigorous, but The Washington Times reports that the Senate hasn't worked a full week yet this year.

In their defense, I feel compelled to note that elected officials work all the time. When they're home on weekends, they're hitting events and talking to local officials. It's a lot of work to win an election, so when you succeed, you want your constituents to know that you are not a creature of Washington. And the longer your commute is the less time you want to spend in Washington.

Elected officials are supposed to spend time outside Washington. That's why senators get a week off in February, two in April, one in May, one in June -- all before the August recess.

So why change? "We have to learn how to put in a decent week's work on the floor again, because another thing we've lost around here is an appreciation for the power of the clock to force consensus," McConnell argued on the Senate floor in January. When the Senate adjourns on Thursday afternoons, there are no Thursday late-night sessions to hammer out deals. It's easier to be a do-nothing Congress.

Monday votes usually don't happen until the afternoon. "Congress has devolved to a three-day workweek -- Tuesday to Thursday -- with constant travel between home and Washington," former Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, wrote in her book, "Fighting for Common Ground." Members spend so little time in D.C. that they don't form working relationships that facilitate "consensus building."

No congressional aide would respond to my queries on the record. You can figure what they said. Just because the schedule says five days doesn't mean senators will spend five days in D.C. All that talk about lawmakers bonding over bourbon -- well, it's mostly just talk. You can stick members in the same town for a week, but that doesn't mean they'll listen to one another. Maybe Capitol Hill was different when Congress was a boys club and it took days to get from Topeka to Foggy Bottom. Now a longer week just gives senators more time to spend with their noses buried in their smartphones.

Methinks there's a temptation to use technology to get free of the Beltway. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., sponsored a bill to allow members to vote remotely on procedural issues and participate in committee hearings via videoconference. It sounds like reconfiguring Congress to work like a drive-thru window, not a democracy. Wrong, Swalwell told me: His bill would allow members to vote from home, for example, to open Capitol grounds to the Boy Scouts and "spend more time here debating substantive stuff." He supports Friday sessions.

Those who scoff, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart readily noted, don't remember what the Senate was like "before it was known as a graveyard for House bills." If you want to get things done, then you've got to stay in the room till it hurts.