June 25, 2014
Members of Congress don't spend enough time in Washington together doing detailed committee work required for expertise on the important issues confronting the nation, says outgoing House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers.
That sure sounds like politically dangerous "inside-the-Beltway" apostasy that most lawmakers today would adamantly avoid and reject—at least publicly.
But Rogers, first elected to Congress in 2000, is not running for reelection this fall. He would lose his chairmanship because of House GOP term limits if he stayed, anyhow.
Instead, the Michigan Republican has already announced that he will join Cumulus Media after the end of this session as a radio host. And in some ways, it seems, he's already talking like an outside observer of Congress.
Speaking Wednesday to reporters on Capitol Hill during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Rogers did speak solemnly about Iraq and how the intelligence reporting from Iraq "sends chills down my spine" over the possibility of a terrorist attack against the United States.
But his conversation touched on other matters, including his belief that lawmakers needed to spend more time working within their committees and with each other in Washington.
"The problem we've gotten ourselves into in Congress is, we get yanked around in some of the populist trends at home," said Rogers.
He said that includes the notion that it's necessarily better for lawmakers to be at home—one example, he says, in which his party leadership has geared itself to "the smallest part of the majority."
But Rogers says the reality is that the less time spent in committee work and focusing on specific issues within the various topical committee jurisdictions, the more diminished that overall congressional expertise on those topics become.
"If every member is a generalist, then we are going to have a problem," he said.
He said there needs to be "more time in committee working on these issues; if that means staying in D.C. five days a week, then so be it."
In the weeks before Republicans took over the House majority in 2011, then-incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor actually played up how the new House legislative calendar would be overhauled—including by giving members more time in their districts to listen to constituents.
What has been in place ever since is essentially a schedule of the House being in session for two weeks, followed by one week off. And rarely do session weeks last four days; more typically they last three.
Turns out, Rogers is not alone this week in his view that Congress is not in Washington enough and that lawmakers should place more emphasis on committee work.
On Tuesday, the Bipartisan Police Center's Commission on Political Reform released a "blueprint to strengthen our democracy." And in that report, the commission takes note that members are spending more time in their home districts, with shorter workweeks in Washington and more state and local "district work periods."
The report says, "Members typically arrive in Washington on Tuesday for votes scheduled to start in the evening that day and leave after votes on Thursday afternoon. This truncated schedule leaves only one full day—Wednesday—for committee hearings, markups, and the other necessary ingredients for fruitful legislating."
The commission does acknowledge that the media and potential opponents often criticize members for not spending maximum time in their district. But the upshot, it says, is that this has led to less interaction among members themselves, or time to make real overtures to each other on shared interests and issues.
The report goes on to say that "these developments have coincided with a decrease in the powers and influence of congressional committees and the centralization of power in the party leadership."
"The weakening of the committee system in Congress has had a very deleterious effect: It has deprived Congress of the opportunity to build stronger networks of expertise and experience, limited opportunities for collaboration and team-building, and contributed to a sense of disenfranchisement among many rank-and-file members," the report adds.
A solution offered by the commission: Changes to the legislative calendar that would include synchronized five-day workweeks in Washington for the House and Senate, with three weeks in session followed by one-week state and district work periods.
June 25, 2014