Gwen’s Take: Is Washington Not As Bad As You Think?

BY Gwen Ifill  March 15, 2013 at 7:00 AM EDT


At first I was terribly impressed. While reading this excellent column by my friend Ruth Marcus, I was taken aback by this statistic: Members of Congress report that they work 70 hours a week.

What’s more, the Congressional Management Foundation found lawmakers they surveyed said when they are in Washington they spend the bulk of their time on legislative, policy and administrative work. Only six percent of their time is personal, and 17 percent is spent on political or campaign work.

Bravo, I thought. The myth of the do-nothing Congress has finally been undercut. According to this study, members spend similar amounts of time hard at work even when they are in their home districts — when critics often say they should be in Washington.

But as I scanned the report, something was niggling at me, and my normal skepticism kicked in. Hadn’t I read somewhere that members of Congress spend vast amounts of their time raising money? Had I made it up that party officials demand that chunks of every day have to be devoted to dialing for dollars?

A quick Internet search later, I came across my answer — a PowerPoint presentation delivered to incoming freshman Democrats that was unearthed by the Huffington Post in January.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee urged lawmakers to spend four hours out of every 10-hour day on “call time” (the euphemism they use to describe telephone fundraising) and four hours, tops, on committees, floor work and constituent visits. “You might as well be putting bamboo shoots under my fingernails,” veteran Congressman John Larson (D-Conn.) said of the process.

“There’s no way to make it enjoyable,” Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wisc.) said. Another Democrat said the four-hour target was probably “low-balling” the amount of time spent on fundraising.

So how could it be true that lawmakers work overtime to serve their constituents and that they work overtime spending money to get reelected?

As usual, it all comes down to the fine print.

The Congressional Management Foundation, it turns out, came up with their 70 percent number by relying on questionnaires filled out by a scant 25 members of the House (out of 441 representatives and territorial delegates). They say it is “corroborated by other research and work conducted” by CMF, but you mostly have to take their word for it.

No wonder, then, that the report concludes that — according to the lawmakers themselves — they are “hard-working; focusing the bulk of their time on public policy and constituent services; finding great satisfaction in their work; and accepting the personal sacrifices they make for their jobs.”

How uplifting.

Meanwhile, the Huffington Post report is also completely anecdotal. It is true that lawmakers who talked for the story said pretty damning things. (“I don’t know if you’ve been on the Senate side,” Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla) said. “But they go outside and sit in their cars and make calls.”) Still, there is no way to know how many of the elected officials actually do all of what the DCCC asks of them.

Maybe both versions are a little bit true — that our elected representatives do come to Washington with the best of intentions and spend more time than they like on keeping their jobs, yet still devote most of their waking hours to doing what they were sent here to do.

Does this mean that they get anything substantive done? I guess we can only determine which anecdotes to believe when we arrive at the ballot box.