When Paul Ryan became House Speaker a few weeks ago, he made it clear that he has no intention of spending too much time in Washington. His wife and children are in Wisconsin, he pointed out, and he plans to commute. “I just work here,” he told CNN, “I don’t live here.”
I have great sympathy for Ryan’s urge to strike a balance between family and work. It is tough for every member to live and work far from home, and to weigh constantly whether to be in Washington or back in the district.
Yet while we should sympathize, there’s no question where members must be to discharge their public responsibilities. If we want a well-functioning Congress, they need to be in Washington more.
This is politically tough. Members of Congress do not want to be associated with the city.
Yet as Washington Post writer Dana Milbank noted recently in an insightful column on the topic, “It’s no mere coincidence that in the time this trend has taken hold, much of what had previously existed in Washington disappeared: civility, budget discipline, big bipartisan legislation and just general competence. In place of this have come bickering, showdowns, shutdowns and the endless targeting of each other for defeat in the next election.”
Expanding the Capitol Hill workweek, in other words, isn’t just a symbolic gesture. It’s one of the keys to reversing congressional dysfunction.
For starters, you have to get to know your colleagues in order to do business with them. In any legislature, the very nature of the job involves disagreement. Yet everyone there is there to solve problems together; they have no choice but to work together.
Second, drafting legislation is highly demanding, because the core of it involves building consensus. This takes time. It can’t be forced. The array of tough issues that face Congress can’t be dealt with by part-time legislators. Legislating, whether we like it or not, takes a five-day week, not the three that members of Congress put in at the moment.
What I’m arguing for here will not be popular with them, and it certainly won’t get a warm reception from their families. But they are elected to do the job of legislating. For the good of the institution they serve and the work product they owe the nation, members need to spend more time in Washington.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years