If you’re a typical full-time worker, you might take a week of vacation this summer, tack on a couple of long weekends and save a few days of leave for the winter holidays. Overall, you’ll be on the job about 230 of the 250 working days in 2017.
But if you’re a member of Congress, you’ve only got about 30 working days till the end of July—and then you’re off for five weeks. You’ll be back in Washington after Labor Day, but off at least one week per month after that—and at least two in December. Overall, Congress will be in session about 145 of the 250 working days in 2017.
Congress’s cozy schedule has unmistakable implications for President Trump’s ambitious economic agenda. Trump said recently that his tax-reform plan is “ahead of schedule,” but that can only be true if the schedule calls for a vote on a final bill in mid to late 2018. The original plan was to have a bill by this August—which is virtually impossible at this point.
It’s increasingly unlikely Congress will produce a tax bill in 2017, and a health care bill to repeal or replace Obamacare may never materialize. Pundits love to focus on the fractious politics of such issues, but the most overlooked problem is Congress’s limited legislative capacity. “As you put more and more things on the agenda, it reduces the amount of attention you can really pay to any one of them,” says Molly Reynolds, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution. “You can run into a problem with bandwidth.”
Here’s a breakdown of Congress’s working days per month in 2017, based on the calendar generated by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.):
Members of Congress work other days in addition to those when Congress is in session. Most months include at least one week off from Washington duties, so members can return home and meet with constituents, if they choose to do so. Members of Congress don’t get a fixed amount of vacation but take it whenever they wish—with voters deciding every two or six years if their elected officials have a suitable work ethic.
Those days spent back in the home districts are days Congress is not legislating, which is one reason it takes so long for committees to draft bills. The Bipartisan Policy Group publishes a “Healthy Congress Index” assessing the legislature’s effectiveness and recommends that Congress spend about 165 working days in Washington per year. The latest tallies show that the House fell short by 52 days per year and the Senate by 34 days.
It doesn’t help when there are multiple big bills to work on. Different committees work on different issues, but there’s also overlap that limits how much a single committee can get done. The Senate Finance Committee, for instance, is key to legislation on both tax reform and health care (because of taxes related to Obamacare). That can make a single committee a legislative bottleneck. And before Congress even gets to tax reform and health care, it will have to pass a budget for the fiscal year that begins October 1, itself a big undertaking likely to consume most of the working days until then. After October 1, there will be a scant 36 legislating days on Congress’s calendar.
Congress employs about 10,000 staffers, including legislative drafters and many other aides, but that number is down from nearly 12,000 in the early 1990s. And the explosion of technology has made many issues Congress deals with more complicated than they once were, just as in the private sector. “There’s a case to be made that Congress doesn’t have the staff capacity to do all its work,” says Reynolds, “while at the same time, the policymaking environment is becoming more complex.”
Trump has also harmed the prospects for his legislative agenda by firing FBI Director James Comey amid the bureau’s probe of Russian interference in US elections. The Russia controversy has generated probes in both the House and Senate—taking up more legislative time—while pushing Trump’s approval rating below 40%. An unpopular president loses the ability to twist arms in Congress when crucial votes are needed, since members can oppose him with limited blowback from their own constituents.
When Barack Obama became president in 2009, it took Congress nearly a year and a half to draft the legislation that became the Affordable Care Act, signed into law in 2010. The last big tax reform to make it through Congress—signed by Ronald Reagan is 1986—was more than 10 years in the making. Trump, by contrast, seems to think he’ll be signing legislation of similar magnitude at some point during the next few months. He’s likely to be “bigly” disappointed.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman