Alaska editorial: Taking Congress' work ethic to task

Posted: Thursday, December 14, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

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Is it any wonder that Americans have such a low opinion of Congress? Of both its Republican and Democratic members?

One of Congress' principal tasks is to pass legislation to provide the money so that the government can operate. That's a pretty simple concept that most people can understand and that most learn early in their education.

So why did Congress pass only two of the 11 spending bills that the government needs to operate in the fiscal year that has been under way since October? The House did pass the bills, but nine of them died in the Senate. The public, though, doesn't make the distinction between the chambers; all they know is that Congress didn't do its job.

Instead, Congress will end up passing a bill to fund the government through Feb. 15 at 2006 levels.

It's happened before, and it doesn't inspire confidence any time it occurs.

Now, pair that inability to pass the essential spending bills with a couple other tidbits out of Congress.

Start with the work week. House members this year have mostly been working Tuesday through Thursday. And that has mostly been late Tuesday to Thursday afternoon, according to a recent story in The Washington Post. The Senate generally has worked a little longer week, though it usually doesn't hold important votes or hearings on Mondays or Fridays.

Congress has been getting peppered with criticism for having a work ethic that appears to the public to be, well, not much of one.

Things may be about to change in the House. The incoming Democratic leadership says members should expect to be in the Capitol by 6:30 p.m. Mondays. They will try to finish their work by about 2 p.m. on Fridays. Maybe it's posturing on the part of the Democrats. And what good will it do for members to be in the capitol if Democrats don't choose to work with Republicans, and vice versa, to get things done?

It's a good idea, nevertheless. Most Americans, it's probably safe to say, expect their members of Congress to be in the Capitol five days a week when Congress is in session - what with the good pay and all.

And what about that pay?

Congress doesn't look good when it tries to give itself a $3,300 raise while failing to raise the minimum wage for the rest of the country.

There's obviously disagreement on whether to increase the minimum wage, which hasn't risen from the $5.15 level it has been at for 10 years, but it's difficult to see how any member of Congress could disagree that the juxtaposition of a raise for elected officials but not for others just doesn't make the legislative branch look too good. The incoming Democratic leadership last week succeeded in blocking the raise and tying it to an increase in the minimum wage.

The basic annual pay for members of Congress, by the way: $165,200.

The public's view of Congress certainly needs some work. It will need the cooperation of Republicans and Democrats to make it happen.

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