Rather than working hard, Congress is hardly working

March 15, 2009|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,paul.west@baltsun.com

Is Congress fiddling while America burns? That question might be worth posing to members of Congress, but very few were on hand in Washington at the end of the week to provide answers.

Maybe it was superstition, but Congress took Friday the 13th off. The House was not in session. Neither was the Senate. No votes were taken. No action occurred.

The seemingly relaxed pace of work is nothing new. A Monday-night-through-Thursday week in Washington frees up time for more politicking back home or fact-finding trips abroad.

But things have changed. The nation is facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Still, that hasn't stopped some legislators from wondering why they should bother coming to Washington at all, according to House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

"Some members have said, 'Well, gee whiz, we're not meeting very often on the floor, and why are we here?' " Hoyer told reporters.

Hoyer said the answer was that work was going on in committees. But on Friday the 13th no committees met in either the House or Senate. None of President Barack Obama's nominees received confirmation, and his ambitious legislative agenda wasn't considered.

A recent visitor to Washington from Philadelphia, a man who knows a few things about government, took a hard shot at Congress' work ethic. He made the comment in response to claims that Obama is overloading the system, by pushing major overhauls of health care and energy, instead of focusing only on the economic crisis.

"How hard do you think our Congress works? Do you think they work full-time, eight hours a day - give 'em eight - five days a week? Could they expand their workload? Of course they could. Of course they could," said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, a Democrat with three decades of government experience. "Until you can show me that you bust your hump every single day of the week, that you're working 10 hours a day, five days a week and that you have meetings on Saturdays, until you tell me that, don't tell me you're working too hard."

A leisurely official work schedule isn't the only old habit Congress seems to have trouble breaking (though Hoyer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi took steps in that direction two years ago). When it comes to stuffing pet projects into spending measures, the "old way of doing business" - as Obama put it - is alive and well.

Democrats are in charge, so they took the heat for conducting business as usual, though Republicans were responsible for about $2 of every $5 in earmarked spending.

And Republicans seemed more interested in scoring political points than making laws, as they tied up the Senate for days on a measure to fund the federal government for the rest of the year. Republicans forced votes on more than 20 amendments, all of which were defeated.

"You'd think that Congress is living on another planet. Most Americans don't appreciate the endless bickering over how to proceed," says Paul Light, a New York University political scientist.

"Let's get on with it, and not try to find a campaign theme that will resonate two years from now," he added, "and not try to amend bills to death while the country burns."

National opinion surveys show rising approval for Congress. But Light thinks that, at least in part, that is just Obama's personal popularity rubbing off on the legislative branch.

"Right now, Congress is the impediment," he says. "The Congress needs to get serious. This is not a time for game-playing."

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