And now, a scheduling update
How to keep track of the congressional calendar
This week, I’m providing a quick scheduling update—from Congress!
There has been a flurry of activity the past few weeks: the largest Covid-relief bill yet was signed into law, the House passed bipartisan gun control legislation, and the Senate has been confirming several Cabinet positions. But while the completion of these tasks makes news, it can be hard to figure out when these events are coming up.
This short post will show you how to find and follow the congressional calendar and track forthcoming bills and committee hearings.
Finding the congressional calendar
Establishing and distributing the calendar is the responsibility of the Majority Leader in the House and Senate (Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in the House, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in the Senate). Each chamber has their own calendar, and while they often align, they sometimes don’t.
You can find the House calendar here, and the Senate calendar here. And if you want a calendar that has both chambers on the same calendar, you can find that here. You can see all current and past calendars here.
Terms to know:
In session: Members of Congress are expected to be in D.C. and should be prepared for votes, committee hearings, and other Washington, D.C.-based activities (Note: the House currently has proxy-voting in place for the purposes of Covid-19, but most members make an effort to be in D.C. during session weeks).
District work period: This is what is commonly referred to as “recess.” The chamber is not in session (there are no votes), and members are often in their home district or state. While Congress is often criticized for being “on vacation” during recess, (most) members are working in the district—meeting with constituents, visiting schools and hospitals, and performing public service.
Committee work period: This is somewhat of a hybrid between the two, and is a new term developed by House leadership in response to the pandemic. During these weeks, committees are expected to meet, but they can meet in-person or virtually. In other words, members can technically attend committee hearings from their district.
The schedule changes, a lot—but there are usually a few weeks’ notice of substantial changes. In general, the entire month of August is always a district work period. Congress is also usually in recess during October of election years (you can guess why).
Tracking upcoming votes and hearings
Votes and committee hearings are even more in flux, but there are a few resources we can use to track upcoming activity. Bills being considered (ie, voted on) are usually posted on Monday, but this is merely a norm. While bills do have to be available to all members in advance, there is variation in how much time is provided. Many bills, particularly large, important packages, are negotiated until the very lat minute.
Because the majority party controls the floor, again, it’s the majority leaders who determine the schedule and post the information.
In the House, that’s Majority Leader Hoyer: He has a website with floor updates, and previews the week with his “Weekly Leader” newsletter. Voting and debate occurs during “legislative business”, and votes times are specifically noted.
(You’ll notice that while it’s an overview of the schedule, it also provides advice on how Democratic members should vote. Members, they’re just like us! They have about as much of a heads up on bills that we do and often need clarification on legislation.)
For Committee hearings, Congress.gov has a relatively new website that catalogues all upcoming hearings. Hearings are required to have 72 hours of public notice, so these can be a little easier to track. You can also visit the website of any given committee and look for upcoming events.
So how much does Congress actually work?
A constant criticism is that Congress “doesn’t work enough.”
It is true that members travel much more than they used to, in part, thanks to the advent of the airplane. In addition, while families used to move to D.C. as well, today families often stay home in the state or district—another reason many members head home as much as possible. Members of Congress are worried about appearing as a “swamp creature” that spends too much time in D.C.—and spending weekends in D.C. or moving your family certainly doesn’t help with that image.
But when compared to prior years, today’s Congress works essentially the same amount of days. However, what has changed however is how Congress uses that time—note, Congress is spending fewer hours in session:
Today, there are far fewer committee hearings than prior Congresses, and much more time is spent fundraising. The result is that members often try to cram in as much work as possible while they’re in D.C. Back-to-back meetings, late night votes, fundraising calls during lunch. In fact, every member has a staffer dedicated to managing their schedule (“the scheduler”).
But ultimately, this is inefficient. Meetings and committee hearings overlap, and no matter how hard they try, members of Congress can’t be in two places at once. It’s estimated that over the course of two years, there are over 10,000 scheduling conflicts in committee hearings alone.
There have been several proposed changes to make the congressional calendar more efficient and effective. One proposal, “two weeks on, two weeks off” would keep members in Washington, D.C. for more consistent periods of time (two weeks in D.C., two weeks in the district). This approach has several benefits beyond scheduling, such as increasing personal connection and bipartisanship.
But it’s a tricky topic, and there are tradeoffs for every proposals. Have you ever tried to schedule a meeting with 435 people? However, if this is an area you’re interested in, there’s are several reform groups who debate how to improve the schedule and calendar. For ideas, resources, or pros and cons of various proposals, check out Chapter 12 from the Modernization Committee’s Final Report.
And as always, comments, ideas, and questions welcome! Have a great weekend.