Are Lawmakers Getting The Job Done In DC?: A Look By The Numbers

10:40 AM, Mar 1, 2013   |    comments
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The following story was reported by KARE in Minneapolis on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (KARE) -- As thousands of daily spectators marvel at the United States Capitol Building, there are hundreds of lawmakers rushing to and from meetings.

The House occupies one side of this magnificent building while the Senate rules over the other half. But between the robust and solid walls lies a fractured government.

Millions of Americans are wondering what, if anything is getting done in Washington right now. We went to Minnesota's representatives to find out.

"It's a combative sort of mood right now," Republican Rep. John Kline of Lakeville told KARE 11.

"I think people are getting tired of it," fellow congressman Keith Ellison, a Minneapolis Democrat, explained.

"It's high time we get something done," GOP congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Stillwater implored.

Kline, Bachmann and Ellison agreed to meet with us during one of their "off" weeks, as Congress stared down another budget crisis in the form of sequestration. They were generous with their time and candid in their answers. We also spent a fair amount of time with University of Minnesota Political Science Professor Kathryn Pearson, a former staffer on Capitol Hill and an expert on Congress.

"We are seeing fewer days in session, fewer hours on the House and Senate floors and fewer committee meetings, and that is troubling," Pearson said. "With shorter work weeks there is less time for committee work, less time to get to know members across the aisle, and less time for members to come up with their own plans and forge compromise."

Pearson also believes powerful party leaders are making major decisions and sometimes bypassing the committee process.

Many will blame recent inaction on a divided government, meaning different parties controlling the Senate, House and the Presidency. Historically the excuse doesn't hold water.

"We've seen landmark legislation under divided government. Certainly we saw it during the Reagan era and even during the Clinton era," Pearson said.

We looked at three other years of divided government, roughly comparable to 2012, when a Democrat, President Barack Obama, held the oval office. Democrats controlled the Senate, but Republicans controlled the House.

Here's how the numbers broke down, according to the Resume' of Congressional Activity.

2012- Pres. Obama (D), Senate (D), House (R)
Time in session- 725 hours
Public bills enacted into law - 106

2008 -Pres. Bush (R), Senate (D), House (D)
Time in session - 890 hours
Public bills enacted into law - 183

1996 - Pres. Clinton (D), Senate (R), House (R)
Time in session - 919 hours
Public bills enacted into law - 192

1984 - Pres. Reagan (R), Senate (R), House (D)
Time in session - 852 hours
Public bills enacted into law - 242

Fewer and fewer laws were passed in the House as time went on. Hours in session also plummeted in 2012. The full House, last year, met for 752 hours, that's 100 fewer than in 1984 and 167 fewer than the House met in 1996.

Former Congressman Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who served for 36 years, says members are being forced to spend more time raising money and coming home to their districts. He says two-and-a-half day work weeks are the norm now in Washington.

"If you can't sit down across the table or side-by-side and look at a member of the other party in the eye and say, 'I trust you. Let's work this out,' then the public is the victim," Oberstar explained.

The discussions on the budget, continuing resolutions and debt ceilings have fallen victim to the partisan gridlock, political analysts say. Members of Congress readily admit that the leaders in Washington, collectively, have been kicking the can down the road.

Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann says she understands the low approval rating for congress, which sits at 15 percent.

"I trust the judgment of the American people, because they see a lot of fighting and of course they want to see something get done, and I agree with them," she said.

Minneapolis Democrat Keith Ellison, another vocal member of Congress, agrees with his counterpart across the political aisle.

"People (members of congress) work 15 hour days every day, but what I can also tell you is that we come in there and we dig into positions that we just won't back down (from)," the Congressman said.

High-ranking Republican John Kline says he gets the question about what Congress is doing quite often. He notes that a lot of bipartisan legislation gets passed that doesn't draw headlines, but he also understands the frustration on the budget.

"It would be better if we could sort of step away from 'It's your fault' to 'What are we going to do to fix this thing?' That's what we're trying to get at," explained Kline.

In fairness, Pearson says the same problems plague the Senate. She also explains that Presidential leadership plays a key role too.

"I think there is plenty of blame to go all the way around," Pearson concluded.

Sequester cuts could be coming. There is no big budget deal on the horizon and no one is budging on the debt ceiling debate, but Minnesota members are selling hope and hoping the public is patient.

"I don't think it's a daunting task at all. This is very doable," Rep. Bachmann said.

"I think there is an answer. I think there is a path to solution, but we haven't arrived there yet," Congressman Ellison said.

"I'm ever optimistic and we'll come together, but it's going to be a rough patch here," Rep. Kline concluded.

If you are wondering how active your member of Congress is, there is an easy-to-use website run by the Library of Congress that will help you track the amount of legislation that he or she has introduced.

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