George Packer has a pretty excellent article on the United States Senate, adding some depth and texture to complaints you’ve seen all over the blogosphere. He also highlights this issue of time, which I think hasn’t been raised before in an adequate way:
While senators are in Washington, their days are scheduled in fifteen-minute intervals: staff meetings, interviews, visits from lobbyists and home-state groups, caucus lunches, committee hearings, briefing books, floor votes, fund-raisers. Each senator sits on three or four committees and even more subcommittees, most of which meet during the same morning hours, which helps explain why committee tables are often nearly empty, and why senators drifting into a hearing can barely sustain a coherent line of questioning. All this activity is crammed into a three-day week, for it’s an unwritten rule of the modern Senate that votes are almost never scheduled for Mondays or Fridays, which allows senators to spend four days away from the capital. Senators now, unlike those of several decades ago, often keep their families in their home states, where they return most weekends, even if it’s to Alaska or Idaho — a concession to endless fund-raising, and to the populist anti-Washington mood of recent years. (When Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, in 1995, he told new Republican members not to move their families to the capital.) Tom Daschle, the former Democratic leader, said, “When we scheduled votes, the only day where we could be absolutely certain we had all one hundred senators there was Wednesday afternoon.”
I don’t really mind the decline of deliberation or bipartisanship, both of which I think are easily overrated, but the total collapse of legislative oversight is a mess. If members of congress aren’t going to do oversight work, then you’d really be better off replacing them with automatons who just ratify bargains struck by party leaders.
The change in the schedule isn’t all there is to be said about this story, but it’s part of it. Certainly the rise of the conceit that representing Idaho in the United States Senate is a job that should be primarily done from Idaho is a bit absurd. If the President of the United States calls you up and asks if you want to be Attorney-General, he’s asking you, among other things, if you want to move to Washington DC and do an important and time-consuming job that’s located in Washington DC. Becoming a United States Senator should be more-or-less the same. If you don’t want to move to DC, and you don’t live in Maryland, Virginia, or maybe Delaware then you shouldn’t run for congress. The longstanding tradition of congress taking fairly extended “recesses” so that members can get in touch with their constituents makes a ton of sense, but the newfangled tradition of congress combining extended recesses with three-day workweeks is pernicious. It may, however, be irreversible in which case the correct solution is to try to further decrease the influence of individual members over policy design.