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Hey, Congress: Keep Your Day Jobs

The freshmen members of the upcoming 112th Congress pose for a class photo on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. The group includes a dentist, a nurse and a pizzeria owner, among other professions.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
The freshmen members of the upcoming 112th Congress pose for a class photo on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. The group includes a dentist, a nurse and a pizzeria owner, among other professions.

Next week, hordes of conservative Republican lawmakers will descend on Washington to take their seats in the freshman class of the 112th Congress. But some prominent conservatives suggest the best thing lawmakers can do to fix Capitol Hill is to stay the heck away from it.

"We used to pay farmers not to grow crops. Let's pay congressmen to stay out of Washington, D.C.," Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal recently told Human Events. In a new book, Jindal makes a serious case for a return to a part-time Congress, among other things. He argues that once elected, lawmakers who once promised to change Washington "become part of the problem" and turn into a "permanent governing political class."

His solution? "Make them part-time, give them term limits. Don't let them become lobbyists. When they have to live under the same rules and laws they pass for the rest of us, maybe you'd see some more common sense coming out of Washington, D.C."

Echoing Jindal's call for a return to a citizen-legislature, conservative columnist Cal Thomas writes on his website, "The Founders were keenly aware of the danger of a Congress divorced from the realities of the rest of the country."

He adds: "Returning home shouldn't mean flying home for long weekends and then coming back to Washington. It should mean returning to a real job where the member can't raise his own pay, receive top medical care at reduced or no cost, print and spend other people's money, or count on others to pay into his retirement fund. If he owned a business, he would have to meet a payroll and balance the budget. The member would also have to rely on Social Security, like other Americans."

Such a radical revamping of Washington is unlikely to happen anytime soon. But the calls for a part-time Congress do raise interesting issues. With Congress' favorability rating at a bottom-scraping 13 percent, it's clear that most Americans think the institution must make some changes. And some believe that a Capitol full of people -- with real jobs-- could be a step in the right direction. But is it feasible?

'Habits Of The Place'

If the newbies-elect coming to Washington in January did keep their day jobs, dentist Paul Gosar of Arizona would keep drilling on people's teeth, pizzeria owner Bobby Schilling of Illinois would continue to pile on the pepperonis, and nurse Renee Ellmers of North Carolina would go on making her rounds.

Being a part-time politician, a part-time businessperson and a part-time family person can be a juggling nightmare.

"It's a struggle," says Brian Dubie, the Republican lieutenant governor of Vermont, who is also a pilot for American Airlines. But, Dubie adds, he prefers his taffylike situation -- pulled among his public, private and professional lives -- to being a full-time politician. "Someone who's so focused," Dubie adds, "loses his perspective."

To reduce the Congress -- the peoples' voice -- to a part-time role would be to create an all-powerful 'leader' who would bear the title 'president' but hold the powers of a king. It would be a complete abdication of the American system of limited central authority.

Steven Horsford of Nevada, a four-term Democratic state senator who also runs a culinary training academy in Las Vegas, believes that with a citizen-legislature, people of all backgrounds have an opportunity to serve their state.

"Unlike certain places that have full-time legislatures," Horsford says, "in Nevada we have people in our legislature who are teachers, who run nonprofits, who are small-business people, are ranchers, all of whom give a diverse perspective on setting public policy for the state."

In the days of earliest America, Roger Sherman of Connecticut -- a signer of the Declaration of Independence -- understood the positive aspects of a part-time national legislature. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he opined that "Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of government, they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents."

When Members Didn't Stick Around So Much

From 1789 to 1815, members of Congress couldn't afford to stay year-round in Washington because they were paid so poorly. Senators and representatives made just a few dollars a day. In 1815, they began receiving $1,500 a year salary. In 1855 that doubled. By 1935, they were making $10,000 a year. But most members of Congress still needed day jobs.

Even into the 1960s, members of Congress "were out of session about as much as they were in, and they had almost no personal and committee staffers assigned to them unless they were senior and powerful," says Larry Sabato, an American history professor at the University of Virginia and director of the university's Center for Politics. It wasn't until the 1970s that members of Congress began seeing their positions as year-round commitments.

Some people never got used to the transition. "I think we spend too much time in Washington," Sen. Bob Dole testified before Congress in 1993. "If we could spend six months here and six months at home, I think the country might be better off. We might be more efficient. We might get our work done."

In 1994, when the Republican Party gained majority power in the House of Representatives -- for the first time in 40 years -- the Heritage Foundation published a report examining the benefits of a part-time Congress. The report found: Congress has grown too large and has become too expensive to maintain; its scope of authority is growing, while its accountability is shrinking; its members are isolated from the real world and resistant to popular opinion.

The push for smaller government by the report -- and others calling for a part-time Congress -- fits hand in hand with other calls for smaller government: term limits, a shrunken federal budget and increased states' rights.

Checks And Balances: Why Congress Went Full Time

The evolution of a full-time Congress, says Sabato, is rooted in an attempt to maintain checks and balances in the federal government as the nation has become more populated and more complicated.

"The assertion of legislative power during and after Watergate," says Sabato, "changed the equation. Congressional offices grew rapidly and key committees from appropriations to foreign relations were dramatically staffed up."

The whole point of this thrust, Sabato says, "was to enable the legislative branch to match the executive branch in research capability -- leading to independent judgment and a better check and balance of presidential power."

This was, he says, the "professionalization of Congress, elements of which were longer annual sessions, beefed-up staffs, and sizable full-time salaries for congressmen. The legislative branch has a better chance to be a real check on the executive branch."

Mickey Edwards, a retired congressman from Oklahoma who served for 16 years and was a member of the House Republican leadership, says a full-time Congress is necessary. "Too many of the people who have justifiable concerns about the growth of government fail to recognize that their 'solutions' would actually make things worse, not better."

"We live in a fast-moving world with great challenges," says Edwards, who now teaches public and international affairs at Princeton University. "To reduce the Congress -- the peoples' voice -- to a part-time role would be to create an all-powerful 'leader' who would bear the title 'president' but hold the powers of a king. It would be a complete abdication of the American system of limited central authority."

With a Congress only occasionally on hand "to deal with the important questions of government, spending programs, security and foreign policy decisions and government appointments," Edwards says, "the king at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would reign supreme, reducing the influence of the people to an almost inconsequential buzzing, like mosquitoes."

'You Can't Serve Two Masters'

Even at the state level, governing can be ungainly and require full attention. Gail Buckner, a state legislator in Georgia, says she doesn't see how some legislators hold down day jobs.

"I'm consumed with my legislative work," she says. "People have a lot of needs and expect their legislator to help solve them."

Buckner adds, "You can't serve two masters. You're killing yourself to carry on a full-time job and carry on with other activities that go on in the General Assembly. Really, the people who get shortchanged in this process are our families. We're working to serve the citizens, and our families usually get what time is left over."

Leading one life is hard enough. Leading three lives -- public, private and professional -- is a lot to ask for any person. "There's probably no golden mean," says Sabato, "but if it exists, it is obvious we haven't found it. The world is too complex for the part-time Congress of yore, and the conflicts of interest and overweening executive power would return quickly if we reinstituted it. At the same time, the modern professionalized Congress is deeply unpopular in many ways."

As members of the 112th Congress take their seats, they will experience some checking and balancing in their own lives. Incoming Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said that he hopes to streamline the legislative process to help the lawmakers get back home more often and for longer periods to spend time with their families and to listen to their constituents.

And, of course, to raise more money for re-election. So they can spend more time in Washington.

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Linton Weeks
Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
Arnie Seipel
Arnie Seipel is the Deputy Washington Editor for NPR. He oversees daily news coverage of politics and the inner workings of the federal government. Prior to this role, he edited politics coverage for seven years, leading NPR's reporting on the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections. In between campaigns, Seipel edited coverage of Congress and the White House, and he coordinated coverage of major events including State of the Union addresses, Supreme Court confirmations and congressional hearings.
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