Last week, Business Insider’s global editor-in-chief made an embarrassing and, honestly, baffling admission: He didn’t know that each and every seat of Congress is on the ballot every two years.
“That’s insane,” Nicholas Carlson tweeted (in a post he has since deleted). “No wonder they’re all grandstanding like their (sic) in the middle of a campaign all the time. Because they are!”
“This is a problem!” he added.
And just like that, one more voter grew frustrated with the way things work in Washington. He may have been slow to realize that Congress spends a lot of time not legislating, but he's not wrong about the problem.
Changing the length of the terms our elected representatives serve would require a constitutional amendment. But there are ways that Congress can change the way it operates to make the time members spend in the Capitol — as well as the time they spend at home — more productive.
Just ask U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan.
The Democrat from the town of Vermont is a member of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress — a bipartisan committee established in January tasked with holding hearings and developing recommendations on modernizing the House.
“We’re trying to improve how Congress operates,” Pocan told me late last month, while he was back in the 2nd Congressional District for a week between a set of four-week floor periods.
Our conversation — which you can hear in full on my Wedge Issues podcast — covered the gradual growth of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, why he supports launching an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump and, among other things, the Wisconsin cheeses he shares with his friends in Washington, D.C.
But it was Pocan’s mention of the committee’s modernization efforts that piqued my interest.
He has a lot of experience in legislative politics, starting long before he was elected to Congress. He served on the Dane County Board from 1991 to 1996 and was elected to the state Assembly in 1998. He served there until he was elected to Congress in 2012.
Although he is an unabashed progressive Democrat, he has also earned a reputation for forging productive relationships — even friendships — across the aisle, most notably with state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, during his time in the state Legislature.
When I asked Pocan what has surprised him most about Congress, his answer was, “Just how much time is utterly wasted in airports and airplanes.”
There’s nothing Congress can do about how far its members have to travel or how often weather or mechanical difficulties cause flight delays and cancellations. But Congress can give its members a more sensible schedule, which might even provide the added bonus of leading to stronger bipartisan relationships.
The House is rarely in session for a full, five-day week — which means members often spend part of the workweek flying back and forth rather than getting to know each other outside of the Capitol.
Pocan is advocating for a change to that schedule. Under his suggested calendar, the House would be in session for two consecutive five-day weeks, followed by two consecutive weeks at home. That would provide more time on the floor, more time in Washington and more uninterrupted time at home.
“Maybe we’ll stay over the weekend and get to know each other — God forbid that would happen,” he said.
The new schedule would also give lawmakers a more focused period of time to meet with constituents in their districts.
“You’d be home for two weeks in your district, because it’s as important that I’m representing the views of people across the district as I am trying to explain Washington to everybody in the district,” Pocan said.
A calendar change is far from the only adjustment that could benefit Congress — and with a disapproval rate of 77 percent among the public according to Gallup’s monthly poll, few would question some changes are in order.
But other adjustments that have been suggested — pay increases and changes in committee structure, for instance — are likely to be a heavier lift. A new calendar won’t solve every problem, but it would be a small start.
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