An old saying advises that anyone who likes sausages or laws should not watch either being made.
In the three months I've been assigned to Washington, I've seen a few reasons why that may be true about Congress, including:- Congress, doesn't work hard - at least it hasn't since I've been here. In those three months, Congress has put in maybe a good week's worth of work.
It worked hard during the final days of the 100th Congress in October. Then it went home for the election and stayed home for the holidays.
It came back Jan. 4 and 5 to convene the 101st Congress and count electoral votes, then recessed until President Bush's inauguration.
- The House still isn't working hard now either - and that, ironically, will ensure that all congressmen receive a controversial 50-percent pay raise, from $89,500 to $135,000 a year.
If both houses do not vote by Feb. 8 to reject that raise, it takes effect. House leaders, who favor the raise, are ensuring no vote will be taken on it by allowing only "pro forma" sessions before the deadline - where no substantive legislative matters may be discussed.
It sets a interesting example for the nation: Do nothing, and don't allow your colleagues to do anything either - and you'll get a big raise.
- At least congressmen will know what to do with their raise when they get it. Roll Call, a private newspaper aimed at members of Congress, ran a lengthy story this week with advise on how to invest the extra $45,500 to avoid excessive taxes.
Congressmen will have some time to think about that advice, too. Shortly after the raise takes effect, Congress is taking a two-week "President's Day District Work Period" in mid-February. That translates to a vacation from Washington work.
That's part of the dark side of Congress that I've seen so far. But there are reasons to have hope for a brighter future:
- Even though Congress hasn't worked hard while I've been here and is using some questionable tactics about its pay raise, I think the pay raise will result in a more ethical Congress.
It will force Congress to ban honoraria - the ethically questionable fees they receive for giving speeches to interest groups.
Congressmen should be paid enough so that they won't have to look to honoraria or help from interest groups to make ends meet. Regardless what critics say, congressmen do face some tough expenses.
That includes maintaining a home both in Washington and their district, keeping a car at both places and surviving the ridiculously high cost of living in Washington.
Housing in Washington really is three to six times as expensive as Utah. And virtually every other sort of item is at least 15 percent more expensive than in Utah.
- Many congressmen complain about how Congress doesn't dig in and work harder and quicker. Maybe if enough of them feel that way, they may change the system.
Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, remembers the days that he was speaker of the Utah House of Representatives, with its 45-day sessions. "The Legislature met and got down to business immediately, it had to. We should in Congress, but don't."
- Also to be fair, even when the House and Senate are not in session, members can still work. They can draft legislation, work on compromises on bills (such as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, did with his child care bills), meet with constituents and take fact-finding trips (such as recent trips by both Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, to the Middle East).
It isn't fair to totally judge how effective Congress is by the hours it keeps. It should be judged on its results, which are yet to come. Still, on balance, it isn't safe yet to open your eyes and watch laws being made.