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While You're Working, Congress Isn't

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
The Exchange
A hallway outside the Senate chamber is empty during the tenth hour of a floor speech by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013 in Washington. Cruz began a lengthy speech urging his colleagues to oppose moving ahead on a bill he supports. The measure would prevent a government shutdown and defund Obamacare. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

America has a new Public Enemy No. 1. And chances are, you voted for it.

CEOs are the usual target of ire over the diverging fortunes of the rich and the rest. But 2013 is turning into the year when members of Congress made greedy CEOs look good. Congress had its least productive year in decades in 2013, and may have done more harm than good through a government shutdown and other gridlock-fueled antics that hurt the economy. The partisan hostility in Washington has pushed Congress’s already low approval rating to the sorriest level on record.

Base pay for members of Congress is $174,000 per year, with the Speaker of the House (currently John Boehner) earning $223,500 and leadership members of both parties earning $193,400. Generous retirement benefits and other perks may be worth up to $110,000 per year more. There’s nothing new about those numbers, and pay rates, in fact, have been frozen since 2009.

A dwindling usefulness

What is new is the dwindling amount of useful activity that takes place in Congress. The legislature passed just 57 bills in 2013, compared with an average of 282 passed bills per year from 1973 through 2012. So the 2013 tally was 80% below the historical average.

The amount of legislation passed in a given year isn’t necessarily a sign of success or failure, but it’s not like everything’s going great and Congress simply needs to stay out of the way. The economy is still weak, unemployment levels — while improved remain high and America may be in a state of long-term decline. The tax code gets creakier and costlier every year. Immigration policy is way out of date. There’s plenty for Congress to do, if it were actually looking for something to do.

At least they’re not spending too much time on the clock in Washington, D.C. The media’s saturation coverage of politics might leave the impression that Congress works all the time. If only. The House recently adjourned for the year after being in session for only 155 days in 2013. The Senate, which may adjourn later this week, has logged 146 days in session so far this year. If you’re, say, a full-time corporate employee with a cushy four weeks of annual vacation, plus all the federal holidays off, you’re still required to work 231 days per year, or 49% more than a member of the House. If you only get two weeks of vacation, make it 241 days, or 55% more.

Of course many American's don't even have it that good. The percentage of Americans with full-time benefits such as paid vacation and holidays is going down, with software firm Intuit predicting that 40% of all U.S. workers will be freelancers of some kind by 2020. At the same time, companies are relying much more on part-timers who get limited benefits, if any. (This is one of those worrisome trends Congress could be addressing if it wanted to.)

The local factor

But when members of Congress aren't in Washington, aren't they back home in their districts working Rotary Club meetings and sitting down with constituents to hear their concerns over coffee? Ummm, not really, unless they happen to be up for reelection. It’s no accident that the House was only in session for two days in August and eight in December this year. Or the Senate, three days in August and five, so far, in December. Do they rush home to meet with constituents just as everybody’s leaving for summer vacation or holiday travel? Or do members of Congress take their own extended vacations during the two months of the year when voters are least likely to be home?

Even when Congress is in session, legislators spend relatively little time drafting laws, holding hearings or doing the people’s business. What they spend a lot of time doing is raising money for their reelection campaigns or for their own political-action committees up to half of their time, by some estimates. Anybody who has spent a few days around Capitol Hill knows politicians arrive like ants on sugar whenever there’s a TV camera around, while un-televised hearings or speeches in the legislative chambers are as sparsely attended as church on Monday.

If you measure Congress’s productivity as pay earned per law passed, the typical member this year earned $3,053 per law. The 106th Congress (in office from 1999 to 2000) passed 604 laws, earning the typical member just $460 per law passed. The 101st Congress (1989-1990) passed 666 laws, for a scant $281 per law.

In that regard, no Congress in modern times has been paid more for doing less than the current group. We may even be paying them to do harm, since the 16-day government shutdown in October cost the economy about $20 billion. Other Congressional behavior, such as the “fiscal cliff” standoff at the end of 2012 and the showdown over raising the federal borrowing limit in 2011, rattled financial markets while discouraging businesses and consumers from spending.

In Congress’s first year, 1789, members were in session for 168 days. They got paid $6 per day, the equivalent of a $26,000 salary today, and when Congress adjourned that fall, many members went home to help run the family farm or business. That group of part-time legislators, perhaps the most important Congress ever, passed many of the laws that formed the framework of the U.S. government for the next 220 years.

In 2013 members of Congress worked less, got paid a lot more and struggled to produce anything of significance. If America really is in decline, it starts on Capitol Hill.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success . Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman .