Legislating? Who's Got Time?

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Your congressmen and senators aren't doing much for you at the moment.

Now before I get a slew of angry e-mails from Capitol Hill, let me explain what I mean. Your congressmen and senators are working hard. In fact, they put in incredibly long hours that often stretch into the weekends. It's just that most of their work at the moment is on their own behalf — not yours. Congressional elections are still seven months away, when one-third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives will face voters, but already incumbents and challengers are campaigning with gusto.

That means the people's business — what you pay these men and women to do — has to get wedged among fundraisers, political speeches and campaigning back home. And not much of the people's business is being fit in at the moment. In any given week now, the House and Senate don't spend more than two days voting on bills. The members don't fly into town until Tuesday afternoon and the first votes usually aren't held until Tuesday evening, if at all that day. Wednesday they put in a full day's work with votes, but they try to get out of town by Thursday evening with the last vote scheduled no later than around 6 p.m. And you can forget Friday for any constructive work; walk around the Capitol and it's a virtual ghost town.

Yes, I know that most of the legislative activity — the bill drafting and vote trading — occurs off the Senate and House floors in committees. But bills ultimately have to be voted on by the full chamber. And the only thing definite a congressman or senator has to do on your behalf is cast his or her vote. But they don't do much of that these days. Last week I was talking to a Republican congressman and I asked him about legislative priorities his party had for this session. "Gee, I don't know," he said, half joking. "We're hardly ever around here to do much." Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has even begun complaining publicly about how difficult it is to get anything done simply because his senators are hardly ever around to vote. To get legislation passed, Daschle and House Speaker Dennis Hastert often have to pull all-nighters Wednesday keeping their chambers in session non-stop through Thursday.

You'd be shocked at how many bills that spend billions of your tax dollars get approved by groggy members after midnight. It's not the best way to legislate. But Daschle and Hastert would be tarred and feathered by both Republicans and Democrats if they had their chambers working a five-day week.

Congressmen and senators will get their backs up when you confront them with the fact that they spend so little time in Washington tending to official business. "We're doing the public's business when we're meeting with constituents, answering our mail or traveling back to our states," they'll insist. Actually, that's not the case. Most of a member's time is spent getting reelected. Congressional staffers tell me privately that as much as three-fourths of their day is spent ensuring that their boss keeps his job. The mail the congressman sends out, the district newsletters, the trips back home, they're all part of the campaign to keep that politician exposed to local folks so come election time they'll vote for him. "What about the public interest?" I remember asking an aide once. He looked at me like I was from Mars, then retorted: "The public looks after its interest. My job is to look after my senator."