Rep. Tom Tancredo (R., Colo.) admits that he has missed several congressional votes during his long-shot campaign for the presidency. But some votes he only wishes he’d missed. Last Monday, he swiped his card to vote on a resolution “supporting the goals of National Bullying Prevention Awareness Week.”
“I was just about to push the green button and vote yes,” he tells National Review Online. “And then I thought to myself: ‘This is so stupid!’ Of course I’m against bullying, but for Congress to spend even one minute on this — it’s just demeaning.” Tancredo was the sole member to vote “present” on the measure, as 375 of his colleagues voted in favor and none against.
Congress takes scores of meaningless and non-controversial votes every year. But in the past they were arranged so as not to waste members’ valuable time on what are commonly known as “bed-check” roll calls. So far this year 68 meaningless or non-controversial votes have been stretched out over 23 Monday evenings — apparently for no other reason than to fulfill Democrats’ promise for a congressional “five-day work week.” Democrats are now giving up on that campaign promise, as their first year in the majority has proven that five days in Washington does not translate to more work getting done.
“The reason we didn’t work five-day weeks was that there was no work to do,” says former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R., Tex.). “They’re cramming a three-day work week into five days.”
During the last Congress and in previous years, Monday votes were avoided in the House so that congressmen could spend more time meeting constituents (part of their job, after all) or being with their families. Members could then take a Monday evening or Tuesday morning flight to Washington for three days of votes and committee meetings. Staff worked weekdays and sometimes weekends on Capitol Hill just to provide members with enough legislative work to do on those three days. Members could usually schedule flights back to their districts for late Thursday night or Friday without fear that they would suddenly be called back.
“That was the brilliance of the design,” says DeLay, who claimed that many Democrats were perfectly happy with the old schedule. “You want members to stay in front of their constituents all the time. You want to give them every opportunity to be with their families, too — it was tough enough with the schedule we kept back then, especially for members west of the Mississippi River.”
But some Democrats saw the schedule as a potential political issue for the 2006 campaign. They heaped criticism for it on the Republicans, who were also pilloried by Stephen Colbert and Keith Olbermann.
It isn’t worth much now, but Republicans are getting the last laugh as Democrats abandon the “five-day week” in favor of something that makes more sense. So far, House Democrats only plan on eliminating Friday votes. Not counting spillovers from Thursday evenings, there have been 93 Friday votes this year to pass five bills into law (two of those bills received attention on a Friday only because Congress was bailing out for its August recess).
The 68 Monday votes have been far more absurd, and as a result all have suffered from bipartisan absenteeism — about 50 members are missing for each one, on average. It is little wonder: 62 of the Monday roll calls were for “suspensions” — non-controversial bills that can pass easily on any day of the week with two-thirds of the vote. Only one Monday vote has ever failed this year. Monday votes account for nine newly named post offices and eight national honorary “months,” “days” and “weeks” to promote awareness of something (such as “bullying prevention”). Two votes pertained to re-naming the same river in Connecticut.
“We’ve never said that it’s all about the number of days we spend here,” said Stacy Bernard, spokeswoman for Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.). “But you need to be here to get things done.” She said that the Monday evening votes still give members some time to travel back to Washington during the day, and ensure that members are around for committee work on Tuesdays — although a search of old committee schedules shows that they did meet on many Tuesdays during the last Congress.
The House has now taken a record-setting 1,009 recorded votes this year. It has produced just 107 public laws, 46 of which involve naming or re-naming facilities, at least 12 of which extend current law, and five of which involve land transfers. Only one — the minimum-wage increase — represents a substantive accomplishment (as opposed to the purely symbolic accomplishment of the “ethics bill”). Despite its five-day weeks, this Congress is about to finish October without sending a single spending bill to the president for the fiscal year that began October 1. It will be the first time this has happened since 1987.
A dearth of new laws from this Congress is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is worth noting that it is on pace to enact fewer laws than any Congress since at least 1973 — as far back as the electronic records go on the Library of Congress website. That includes not only last year’s Congress, but also several Congresses that faced presidents from the opposite party during the Clinton, Bush, Reagan and Ford years.
In defense of this Congress, they probably had a lot more unnamed post offices back then.
– David Freddoso is a staff reporter for NRO.