- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A Democratic lobbyist friend called the other day to share his views about the recently announced 2006 congressional schedule. “I hope Republicans don’t exert themselves too much,” he said jokingly about the proposed timetable that sends lawmakers home to their districts about one week of every month this year.

Yet thinking about the current state of congressional popularity, the preferences of voters, and the importance of downsizing the federal government, congressional Republicans may be on to something. Spending less time in Washington could yield a host of benefits to lawmakers — and the nation.

The first obstacle to a truncated Washington workload is psychological. Over the past two centuries, with the advent of air conditioning, and then the New Deal, Washington evolved into an increasingly hospitable place to work — and hence, to spawn big government.

Nearly 30 years ago, political scientist Richard F. Fenno Jr. in his seminal book, “Home Style: House Members in Their Districts,” recognized that the activities of lawmakers outside of Washington were underappreciated. Mr. Fenno says many observers tend to “downgrade home (district) activity as mere errand running and fence mending, as activity that takes the representative away from important things — that is making public policy in Washington. The ‘Tuesday to Thursday Club’ of House members who go home for long weekends — have always been criticized out of hand, on the assumption, presumably, that going home was, ipso facto, bad.”

For 40 years, from 1955-95, Democrats controlled the House and focused on Washington-based legislating, working, tinkering, building, and expanding the edifice we now know as the federal government. Their collective efforts — undertaken year round, often five days a week and late into the evenings — ensured a larger, more expansive and expensive Washington bureaucracy. Hearings, mark-ups, floor debate, conference committees, press conferences, all contributed to a busy, Beltway-based schedule and burgeoning federal government Leviathan. Washington activity was tantamount to public accomplishment.

When House Republicans took the majority in 1994, they promised to enact the Contract with America — a more conservative set of policies that still required a breakneck Washington schedule. But a conservative Congress doesn’t have to always adhere to a liberal, Washington-centric legislative calendar to find success.

A common liberal myth tries to shame Republicans into emulating activist Democrats. Somehow lawmakers aren’t earning their pay if they are not voting on new programs.

Yet maybe one of the monikers of the “party of smaller government” is a Congress that spends more time in their districts, listening to constituents.

Beyond liming the size of government, spending more time in their districts may even increase congressional popularity. In their book “Congress as Public Enemy,” John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse demonstrate that citizens would welcome lawmakers focusing less on Washington. Asking citizens if they “agree” or “disagree” with a variety of statements about Congress, the authors report 70 percent agree members of Congress “focus too much on events in Washington” (16 percent disagree). And when asked if members of Congress come back to their districts “too often,” only 9 percent agree (78 percent disagree). While these numbers could have changed since the book was first published in 1995, some recent focus group data I’ve seen suggests these views still prevail.

Most recent surveys still find voters feel detached and alienated from Congress as an institution. They don’t know a lot about what happens in the lawmaking process and can’t recall many legislative accomplishments. Spending more time in Washington, passing laws and trying to generate “accomplishments” that fail to move the needle of public opinion, and possibly create bigger government, appears neither rational nor conservative.

Of course, Congress should still focus the majority of its time in Washington, funding legitimate government programs, trimming taxes, curbing lawsuit abuse and finding more efficient ways to accomplish regulatory objectives. But spending a week or so a month back in their districts, listening to constituents, conducting field hearings, observing how programs work (or don’t) and even dispelling misconceptions about the “evils of Washington” might not only produce smaller, smarter government, but also a greater sense of connectedness with citizens and improved views among voters of congressional accountability.

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