Another Perspective

Time for a Congressional Conclave

How might we nudge this Congress and future Congresses to meet their obligations?

By 3.3.11

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You no doubt have read of those periodic surveys of professors of American history who rank the presidents. If there were a survey that ranked the Congresses, with each Congress consisting of a two-year period, First through the current 112th, surely the First Congress of 1789 to 1791 would be ranked very high. Our First Congress:

• established the Departments of State (Foreign Affairs), Treasury, and War;

• passed the Judiciary Act of 1789 which among other things established the Office of the Attorney General, the Naturalization Act of 1790, the Patent Act of 1790, the Copyright Act of 1790, and the Indian Intercourse Act of 1790;

• established the (First) Bank of the United States;

• provided for the first census;

• proposed 12 amendments to the Constitution, 10 of which became the Bill of Rights and another became the 27th Amendment; and

• established the District of Columbia as the seat of the federal government.

The First Congress obviously understood the importance of having a functioning federal government. Would that the current 112th Congress understood the importance of having a functioning federal government!

How might we compel, at least nudge, this Congress, and future Congresses to meet their obligations rather than consistently kicking the can down the road? I suggest that Congress needs to adopt rules for a "congressional conclave."

The word conclave (clave is from the Latin word for key) came into our vocabulary in the late 1300s to describe procedures governing papal elections that regularized the ad hoc procedures surrounding several papal elections in the 1200s. The people had become exasperated with long deadlocks in the election of a new pope -- lasting two and even three years. They sequestered (by lock and key) the cardinal-electors until they elected a pope. This was done in 1216 by the Italian city of Perugia, in 1241 by the city of Rome, and in 1268 by the Italian city of Viterbo. In the last instance, sequestration was not enough to force a result. The city then withheld all food but bread and water. When even that was insufficient, they removed the roof!

I suggest that the Congress should adopt rules to sequester itself. I won't say that it should sequester itself until it produces results such as passing a "Top Ten" or even a "Top Two" list of legislation, but I do say it should sequester itself for a defined period and with a defined agenda that reflects urgent national priorities (like passing an annual budget on time). The analogous state level legislative arrangements are short sessions or special sessions called by a governor.

Our federal legislators should be so busy attending to the priority business of the people that they should not leave Washington, D.C., for a conclave of, let's say, 45 days. During this time, they would not leave Washington to raise funds, meet with constituents, or be with family -- except in cases of illness or death.

Admittedly, for a senator to compile a $10 million campaign war chest, he or she needs to raise $30,000 per week for six years. Representatives have smaller and shorter goals. Nonetheless, fund-raising is about their future, not ours. It's about the next election, not meeting current responsibilities resulting from the last election.

Neither should our federal legislators leave town during a conclave to chat with constituents. They already did a lot of that during their campaigns. They were elected to do the people's business and they should do it!

By the early 1960s, jet travel made it possible for Representatives and Senators to travel every weekend to distant districts. At the same time, air-conditioning made it possible to extend congressional sessions throughout the summer so there was no effort to conclude congressional work by passing legislation before summer commenced. So, although Congress worked year round, it did less work each week.

Some new Representatives have declared that they are residents of their home districts, not Washington, D.C. They illustrate this point by bedding down in their congressional offices and returning to their home district every week for three- or four-day weekends. In February, 2001, the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress issued a report (RL30825), "House Schedule: Recent Practices and Proposed Options," analyzing this work-home district schedule, and three others: a 5-day workweek, a 4-day workweek, and a schedule consisting of 3-weeks-on and 1-week-off. Each of these four schedules assumed, however, a need for our federal legislators to visit their home districts to raise funds, meet with constituents, or be with family. A conclave would suspend such travel for the duration of the conclave.

Congressional rules for a conclave could allow for hearings of course. And the rules could conceivably allow legislators to raise funds via phone calls and videoconferences and attending functions. And they could continue to meet constituents. The legislators would be on their honor to conduct this work in the District so they could focus on the agenda of the conclave. We may not be able to compel their presence for X number of days, but we could shame them into staying in the District just as Wisconsinites recently put the faces of the missing Democratic legislators on an Internet milk carton.

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About the Author
James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. attorney.