Chapter 12: Schedule and Calendar Reforms

During its lifespan, the Committee heard from former Members of Congress, current Members and their staff, and outside experts about the need to reform the way time is spent in Washington.[308] Between committee hearings, floor votes, party responsibilities, constituent meetings, staff time and travel, the demands on Member time continue to grow. Congress’s work schedule while in Washington has drawn frequent criticism from the public, media, and Members of Congress for being inefficient and unable to address the problems Congress faces. While many factors lead to missed deadlines and gridlock, as detailed throughout this report, a prominent suggestion for reform is requiring members to spend more time in Washington working on behalf of the American people.[309] Yet finding more time to legislate, without sacrificing other priorities, has been a persistent challenge for Congress.

As other chapters have detailed, demands on Members’ time and resources have steadily increased. But despite this growth in responsibility, the calendar has largely remained the same. In addition to an increase in D.C. workload, Members’ travel habits have also changed significantly over the last few decades. Regular and convenient air travel has made it possible for Members from all over the country to go home every weekend—and many Members want the opportunity to do so.[310] In addition to constituent concerns, Members’ families are more likely to live in the district today, compared to years prior. These conveniences, while good news for Members’ ability to be home more often, have ultimately come at the expense of legislative time in D.C. It also comes at the expense of Member relationships, ultimately hindering the camaraderie that leads to bipartisan policymaking and legislating.

 Committee commitments present regular scheduling challenges for Members as well. Members typically serve on over five committees and subcommittees, with dozens of Members on each committee. Competing committee meetings create daily scheduling conflicts for Members and their staff.[311]

Despite an acknowledgement of the problem on both sides of the aisle, from rank and file Members to congressional leadership, past reform efforts have failed to address this issue sufficiently.   Proposals and examinations to reform the congressional schedule have been included in every House reorganization study for the past fifty years.

The Committee held a hearing on October 16, 2019, as well as several Member meetings and virtual discussions to investigate options to reform the House calendar.[312] Members and staff explored the challenges of establishing and managing a House calendar and schedule, including reviewing historical information about prior attempts to address the calendar and schedule, and the challenges of imposing one calendar on Members who have multiple, competing demands. The Committee also considered how states manage their legislative calendars, including efficiencies to help legislators’ time management.

This chapter begins with an overview of past reforms on the House schedule, and lessons from state governments that influenced the Committee’s recommendations. In particular, the Committee focused on two primary criticisms of the current schedule: the amount of time spent working in D.C. and substantial conflicts and inefficiencies while in D.C. The chapter then details the Committee’s concepts for reform.

Prior Reform Efforts

In 1977, the House Commission on Administrative Review (Obey Commission) issued a report examining the increase in “pressures on Members’ time”.[313] The Commission recommended that instead of the existing ad hoc schedule, the House adopt a firm schedule of work periods at the beginning of each session of Congress, allocate more committee time early in the calendar year, and permit committees to meet while the House was conducting floor debate. The Commission further recommended that all committee scheduling information be entered into an electronic database to minimize scheduling conflicts.[314]

In 1979, the Chairman of the House Select Committee on Committees introduced a resolution to address committee scheduling by dividing committees into three categories: A, B, and X. Group A committees would have met for markups in the morning while Group B committees would meet for markups in the afternoon. Group X committees would have the flexibility to meet for markups at any time. All committees would have retained flexibility to hold hearings at any time. The proposal did not receive a vote in the House.

The last major effort by Congress to reform the Congressional schedule was the 1993 Joint Committee on the Operation of Congress (JCOC). The JCOC considered many proposals to reform the House schedule to improve efficiency, reduce scheduling conflicts between committees and the House floor, and promote predictability. House Members of the JCOC recommended amending the schedule of the House to provide for:[315]

  1. A four-day legislative week (expanded from three);
  2. Specific and exclusive periods during which only floor proceedings, or only committee meetings and hearings may be held;
  3. Minimizing scheduling conflicts between and among committees and subcommittees; and
  4. Encouragement of the use of a committee scheduling system when planning and scheduling meetings. 

JCOC recommendations were introduced in legislation but did not receive a vote.[316] And JCOC recommendations invoked a Congress-wide discourse—while over 100 Members signed a letter supported reforms expanding the legislative work period, another 130 Members signed a letter endorsing the existing House schedule.  

Although past reform proposals were rarely formally adopted by the full House, party leadership on both sides have adopted some of these reforms in an effort to increase predictability and reduce scheduling conflicts. Kyle Nevins, a former congressional leadership staffer with a background in the congressional calendar, testified before the Committee that reforms implemented since the 112th Congress have promoted predictability, reduced conflicts, and allowed Members to stay connected to their district and families.[317] Since the 112th Congress, the House calendar has been published in advance for the entire year, and has generally operated on a four-day schedule. Today, a legislative day in D.C. is typically from 9am-7pm with floor votes occurring after 1pm and no votes occurring after 3pm on the last day of session. This allows nearly all Members to travel to their district. District work periods are typically clustered around federal holidays. An example of a typical month is below:

Figure 12.1: Sample Month of the Congressional Calendar

figure 12.1

Increasing Legislative Days

Pressure on Members’ time has only intensified since the 1970s. Members represent a growing number of constituents, deal with an increasingly complex policy agenda, and conduct oversight of an ever-expanding executive branch.[318] But despite these demandsthe House does not spend significantly more time in session (days nor hours) than it did in the early 70s. It’s important to note, though, that there has not been a notable decline in time in session either. Figure 2 documents the time spent in session by the House over time, in both hours and days:

Figure 12.2: Time in Session by the House of Representatives, 91st—115th Congresses

figure 12.2

Source: The Brookings Institution, Vital Statistics on Congress, Table 6-1.

This illustrates the challenge facing the Committee on how to reform the schedule and calendar—even though the responsibilities have increased, there are only so many hours and days in the week. But while Members will always have competing ideas of what an ideal schedule looks like, they all agree time spent traveling could be more productive. As Committee member Rep. William Timmons noted in the Committee’s October 16th hearing:

Image 12.1: Rep. William Timmons speaks during the Select Committee’s hearing on the congressional schedule and calendar.

Image 12.1: Rep. William Timmons speaks during the Select Committee’s hearing on the congressional schedule and calendar

“I do think that there are opportunities for improvement. And just briefly, we have 65 full days, 65 travel days right now. The minimum number of travel days we could have is 26. And the maximum number is 66. I don't think we could have more travel days if we really tried.”

Rep. William Timmons, October 16, 2019

Previous reform committees have considered longer, more intensive stretches of D.C. work periods followed by an extended district work period that would increase legislative time and reduce time spent traveling, for example “two-weeks on, two-weeks off”.[319] With an extended district work period, Members may not be able to return to their district as frequently, but providing fewer, yet longer, stretches of district work periods means Members would not sacrifice the total amount of time spent in their district. Committee Member Rep. Mark Pocan spoke to the benefits of longer stretches of time in the district:

Image 12.2: Rep. Mark Pocan speaks during the Select Committee’s hearing on the congressional schedule and calendar.

Image 12.2: Mark Pocan speaks during the Select Committee’s hearing on the congressional schedule and calendar

“…I was just home for two weeks, and during that time, I didn't sit back and catch up on, you know, binge watching of Netflix. I did six town halls and talked to every single county that is in my district. And I think that is part of what you also should do in your job is explaining Washington to the district, but also, getting their values out here.” 

Rep. Mark Pocan, October 16, 2019

Alternatively, Congress could increase time legislating by adding legislative hours to each day. However, that approach of intense, compressed workweeks has been criticized by Members in the past.[320]

Productivity of Time in Washington

In addition to concerns about the amount of time actually spent in D.C., there are inefficient scheduling conflicts between committees and floor work. In an average four-day work period, committees only have two full days to work, because the two days on the bookends of the week are partial travel days. With little time to meet, and with Members serving on over five committees on average, scheduling conflicts are common. A recent analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) found that on just one morning, 131 Members (30 percent of the entire House) had a conflict between two or more committee meetings.[321] In some hearings, up to 97 percent of committee members have a conflict.[322] In total, there are about 10,000 scheduling conflicts, per Congress on average.

Figure 12.3: Number of Member Conflicts, 113th Congress—116th

figure 12.3

Note: Data for the 116th Congress only includes the first session. Source: Bipartisan Policy Center. [323]

These scheduling conflicts divert Members’ attention from expert witnesses and nuanced policy conversations, reducing the quality of Congress’s work. Chair Derek Kilmer and Vice Chair Graves noted the problem of committee conflicts during the October 16, 2019 hearing:

Image 12.3: Chair Derek Kilmer and Vice Chair Tom Graves listen to witness testimony during a Select Committee hearing.

Image 12.3: Chair Derek Kilmer and Vice Chair Tom Graves listen to witness testimony during a Select Committee hearing

“…I don't raise this concern as an individual member who feels like I need a few clones to attend all of my committee meetings. Rather, I say it as someone who thinks that important learning and work is intended to happen in committees, and that work is challenged when folks aren't there. That negatively impacts the ability of Congress to deliver for the American people.”

Chair Derek Kilmer, October 16, 2019

“At this moment, my schedule requires me to be in three different committee hearings at once. I’m scheduled to be here in the Capitol, and two of my Appropriations subcommittees are also meeting right now in Rayburn. Each of these hearings is a priority. One is not more important than the other. But every day we are in session, most of us are faced with impossible demands on our time. Operating this way undercuts our ability to do the best job we can for our constituents.” 
 Vice Chair Graves, October 16, 2019

Possible solutions to reduce conflicts between committees can be found in state legislatures. Many state legislatures create blocks (also sometimes called “groups,” “brackets,” “classes,” or “tiers”) of committees and require members not to be in more than one in each group. Then, each group is given certain time slots in which it can meet. This approach was recommended in 1979 by the House Select Committee on Committees. 

In some legislatures, committee blocks and specific meeting times are prescribed by chamber rules. For example, Colorado House Rule 25(k)(1)[324] strictly allocates each committee particular time slots in which it is permitted to meet. The table below depicts how this rule is applied.

Figure 12.4: Colorado Block Committee Schedule

 Category

Committee

Monday p.m.

Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resources. Education. Finance.

Tuesday a.m.

Business Affairs and Labor. Health, Insurance, and Environment. Judiciary.

Tuesday p.m.

Business Affairs and Labor. Judiciary. Public Health Care and Human Services.

Wednesday a.m.

Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resources. Education. Finance.

Wednesday p.m.

Local Government. State, Veterans, and Military Affairs. Transportation and Energy.

Thursday a.m.

Local Government. State, Veterans, and Military Affairs.
Transportation and Energy.

Thursday p.m.

Business Affairs and Labor. Health, Insurance, and Environment. Judiciary.

Friday upon adjournment as calendared

Public Health Care and Human Services.

As calendared

Appropriations.

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), the first organization to quantify Member committee conflicts, has recommended block scheduling for reducing committee conflicts. BPC proposes the following block schedule which have optimally reduced scheduling conflicts in previous Congresses.[325]

Figure 12.5: BPC Optimized Block Schedule for House of Representatives

Block A

Block B

Block C

Committee on Agriculture

Committee on Appropriations

Committee on Armed Services

Committee on the Budget

Committee on Education and the Workforce

Committee on Foreign Affairs

Committee on Ethics

Committee on Energy and Commerce

Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

Committee on Homeland Security

Committee on Financial Services

Committee on Rules

Committee on House Administration

Committee on the Judiciary

Committee on Veterans' Affairs

Committee on Natural Resources

Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Select Committee on the Climate Crisis

Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Committee on Ways and Means

Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

Committee on Small Business

Joint Committee on the Library

Joint Committee on Printing

Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

Joint Committee on Taxation

Joint Economic Committee

When the system works as intended, Members should not find themselves double-scheduled. Another alternative is to create committee-only periods to avoid conflicts with floor debate and votes. For example, the Virginia Senate requires committees to meet in the morning, before a floor session and in the afternoon, after floor session. Susan Clarke Schaar, the Clerk of the Virginia Senate, testified before the Committee about how the Virginia Senate rules specify days and times committees meet. For example, the Committee on Agriculture meets 9:00am on Monday, and additional meetings must be approved by the Chair of the Rules Committee. This concept was familiar to several of the Committee’s members who served in state legislatures:

Image 12.4: Rep. Dan Newhouse speaks during the Select Committee’s hearing on the congressional schedule and calendar.

Image 12.4: Rep. Dan Newhouse speaks during the Select Committee’s hearing on the congressional schedule and calendar

“I served in the Washington legislature…it seems to me that if we had blocks of time for committees, too, if one block conflicted with another, you could not serve on both those committees. You had to pick and choose. It seems like that might be one option to try…[t]hat may be something we can impose upon ourselves.”

Rep. Dan Newhouse, October 16, 2019

Yet another solution to this is to block certain days or weeks as committee work periods. Prior to the Committee’s October 2019 hearing, the Bipartisan Policy Center suggested designating days in the middle of the week for committee activity or alternating committee-only and floor-only weeks in D.C.[326] In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and remote work period, the House inadvertently began scheduling committee-only weeks in response to reduced floor activity. The Committee heard from many Members who have found the committee-only time valuable.

Figure 12.6: Sample Month of the Congressional Calendar During Public Health Emergency

figure 12.6

The Committee took into consideration prior reform efforts, as well as state practices to develop the following concepts: First, these concepts aim to make the overall schedule more predictable, with less travel for Members; and second, they seek to make Member time in D.C., particularly committee work, more efficient and effective. Unlike prior recommendations, these are concepts for congressional leadership to consider when drafting future schedules and calendars.

Recommendations

Conclusion

There is a direct tension between the amount of work that Members must accomplish in Washington, D.C. and their district, and the reality that there are only seven days in each week, and 52 weeks in each year. Between committee work, time on the House floor, running a personal office, and constituent work in the district, the demand for time is constant. In addition to work pressures, Members of Congress each have their own personal schedules to consider. For example, while the August work period allows some Members with families to spend time with their children, other schools in different regions of the country start earlier. The calendar should work to reflect these differing start dates. However, there is potential for reform by identifying ways to spend time more efficiently, while still allowing Members the flexibility they need to develop their own schedule.

This chapter presents solutions to eliminate the biggest time-related headaches, like travel days and overlapping committee commitments, and considering blocked committee assignments designated committee time, and new scheduling technology to create a common committee calendar. By considering how to spend time more efficiently, the House can not only reduce frustrating conflicts, but provide Members with the time they need to focus on the work that matters to the American people.

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