‘Missed birthdays, games, and plays end in tears,” one congressional wife and mother of young children tells me, delighted by the prospect of the “certainty of the calendar” for the next Congress. All too many parents — in and out of Congress — know that what she says is all too true and often unavoidable. But sometimes it is largely avoidable. Seventy-six of the 87 new Republican members of Congress have children – 233 children in all, most of whom are under 18. And these new members have a leadership that is trying to make these scheduling problems a little more avoidable.
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 throughout this year’s campaign. Having a fairly reliable calendar is not about making life easier — just a little saner and more efficient.
This is one of many practical responses to the acknowledgment that Washington just doesn’t work as efficiently as it could and should. “Poor time management is a symptom of a bloated, inefficient, hyperactive federal government,” says Gary Andres, vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide, who served in the first Bush White House. “The incoming majority’s reforms grasp this reality and send an important signal,” Andres continues. “Success isn’t measured by working overtime to pass new laws and expand the federal Leviathan.” This, along with other promised reforms, is “about listening to America, working smarter, and realizing that naming another Post Office or creating a new Washington program won’t improve our country’s future.”
The goals are: no more late nights, missed planes, and unread bills. In theory, the congressman benefits, his family benefits, and his constituents benefit. Good for members. Good for families. Good for lawmaking.
“Shortening the number of weeks in the session calendar [from 36 to 32] is a good idea that will lessen travel pressure for members,” observes Chuck Donovan, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a longtime Washington hand. “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.” Also, members shouldn’t be waiting until August to really 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. If we look at how and why the Republicans lost the majority in ’06, it was a combination of losing their way on spending and a lack of personal accountability. 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 [four days rather than three]. 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 — on paper, as predictable as one can make it — 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.” It’s about not having major legislative debates at 7 p.m. and votes at midnight. It’s about respecting invited committee witnesses’ time, not arrogantly walking out on scheduled testimony for unexpected votes.
In good Reaganite trust-but-verify tradition, though, Donovan adds: “Interesting to see if this actually happens.” One cynical Hill veteran 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. As Donovan puts it: “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. It’s obvious that as masters of the universe Congress has bitten off more than it can chew.” Bravo. Show up in town with your Constitution in hand, and you might remember that solutions do not all hail from Washington. Think: expediting freedom. The Tea Party may be all too happy to remind you if you forget.
In the end, the life and the performance of a member of Congress will be what each member makes of them. The job he campaigned for “will remain a grueling one, because legislation is only the half of it,” Donovan points out. There are the fundraising and other events, many of them aimed at keeping up relations and money flow for the next election. These are among the reasons conservatives got into term limits in the 1990s. Donovan, speaking in a personal capacity, wistfully imagines a real family 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, “The congressional calendar shouldn’t facilitate isolation and insulation.” This calendar is more conducive to the work of a representative — someone representing hard-working Americans who try their best to not let any priorities fall through.
With power comes responsibility. Mr. Congressman, mark it on your calendar. You can be sure your constituents have already.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at [email protected]. This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact Carmen Puello.