Shouldn’t leaders be on the clock longer?

Shouldn't leaders be on the clock longer?
After receiving the third phone call in one week confirming that I had received an e-mail from Sen. Tim Johnson's office announcing that he would be in the area, a nagging question surfaced.

Just what are Tim (and John and Stephanie and the 400-some-odd other members of Congress) doing right now?

The answer: They are in recess.

It's almost enough to make one hearken to those vintage days of elementary school, when students could look forward to at least one break in the classroom routine every morning and afternoon to romp on the playground, socialize, and get away from the classrooms.

Members of Congress use their recess time to romp in their home districts (or maybe on an overseas junket), socialize, get away from the halls of the Capitol building in Washington, hob-knob with constituents, or, if necessary, concentrate on running for re-election.

Remember what you were doing last year on St. Patrick's Day? If, and this is a big if for most of us working Janes and Joes, you were lucky, you may have gotten the day off.

Congress celebrated that holiday for an entire week. Other days they can mark off their calendar: Martin Lutheran King Jr. Day, President's Day, Passover, Easter, Mother's Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Father's Day, Independence Day, Labor Day ?

I think you get the picture.

There are other "blocks" of time when members of Congress simply leave Washington and return to their home states, like a college student forced to come back and see Mom and Dad because they've run out of money, food and clean clothes.

Congress took Feb. 20-24 off for a President's Day district work period. It took March 20-24 off for a St. Patrick's Day district work period. It left Washington April 10-23 for a spring district work period, and May 29-June 2 for a Memorial Day district work period.

The halls of Congress were empty July 3-7 for an Independence Day district work period, and July 31-Sept. 1 for a summer district work period.

Members of Congress didn't work Nov. 7 because of election day. They returned to Washington, and barely had time to unpack their bags because they don't work Nov. 10 because of Veterans Day.

Approximately two weeks after that, they will adjourn for Thanksgiving.

Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization, did an article recently on America's part-time Congress. He noted that during the 1960s and 1970s, Congress was in session an average of 323 days (over two years). That fell to 278 days in the 1980s and 1990s. It has fallen to below 250 in the Bush presidency.

Ornstein said the House schedule for this year is not exactly onerous. Its schedule includes 71 days when votes are scheduled to take place, plus another 26 days when no votes will occur before 6:30 p.m. This is the smallest number of calendar days since Harry Truman complained about a "do-nothing" Congress, he said.

He points out that the three days they spend in session here are not exactly three full days. They return from their districts on Tuesday nights, and sometimes early Wednesday, and head home again Thursday afternoon.

Not bad if you make 165 grand a year with good benefits.

Let's face it. This emerging part-time Congress is doing a shoddier job of legislating. These are the same people who don't mind cursing Detroit for doing a bad job making cars or find fault with American competitiveness and quality of our work.

Yet they pass bills without knowing what is in them, and they yield much power to their leaders. One could get the impression they really don't like Washington and the job they were elected to do.

The job is growing increasingly complicated. Congress has a full plate ahead in coming weeks, months and years. The Social Security system is going to run out of money, Medicare is far too costly, the war is costing more than anyone ever expected, the retirement system of Americans is in bad need of repair, and keeping our country secure is even more urgent.

Doing a good job on these and other fronts will require more than 97 days out of the year.

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