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Legislators Work Year 'Round. Really, They Do!

What Members of Congress Do All Day and Night

A few years ago the Congressional Management Foundation released a thought-provoking report on Life in Congress from the perspective of Members of Congress.  Although it’s a few years old, the messages still ring true. This survey of legislators may surprise many citizens, even those who are sure legislators and staff sit around all day doing nothing but figuring out new ways to irritate the American people.  Highlights include:

·         They spend the majority of their time in D.C. on legislative policy work and constituent services:  In fact, these activities take up fifty-two percent of their time while in the capitol.  Campaigning, on the other hand, takes up 17%.  If you don’t believe that the substantive work is more important than campaigning, try calling your legislator’s office, explaining you’re a constituent and asking for a few minutes of a staff person’s time to discuss the policy issues you care about.  You’ll get that time, particularly if you’re polite. They may not always agree with you, but they’ll listen.
·         They spend an average of 40 weekends per year in their districts:  These are those infamous “recesses” or “district work periods” that everyone thinks are vacations.  They aren’t.  They are opportunities for constituents to connect with legislators at town halls and through district meetings.   There’s a two week work period coming up the weeks of March 25th and April 1st.  You can make a difference by contacting legislative offices this week to ask when they’ll be having a town hall or community meeting in the district.  Then take the time to go.
·         The vast majority believe they are performing a public service and are invested in their work:  Why would you stay in a job where hardly anyone likes you and it’s impossible to get anything done despite the excessively long hours?  For legislators it’s because they believe in what they’re doing.  In fact, they believe so much that in many cases they are unable to give up principles they hold dear.  Take a minute to look up the bills they’ve introduced at to learn a little more about what they care about.  You’ll be surprised.

I’m not naive enough to believe everyone will be convinced by this study.  Many citizens may agree with one commenter who asked:

“[a]m I supposed to be impressed? If I had an employee who put in so many hours and accopmlished [sic] so little of value I would fire tham [sic].”

Before you get on board with that sentiment, let’s try to be fair.  If I had a job where I had to get 270 people with vastly different views to agree with me before I could get anything done, I’d leave.  Yet legislators stay because they believe that they are representing the views of their constituents -- and with incumbent re-election rates consistently in the 90th percentile range, it appears that many are.  Constituents support their Congressperson because he or she reflects the values of the district they represent.  It’s all those other people who are the problem.   That’s the nature of representative democracy.

If we’re going to make our way out of the mire of our current partisan political environment, perhaps the message from citizens should be “let’s all unbend a little,” not “you’re all jerks who never listen.”  It can only help.

Stephanie Vance