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House off to very, very slow start this year
McClatchy Newspapers


March 27, 2006

WASHINGTON - Some day, Congress will run out of post offices to rename.

And then what will it do to keep busy?

The lawmakers who returned Monday from the "St. Patrick's Day District Work Period" are off to one of their slowest starts in years. They've been in session less, conducted fewer hearings and passed fewer bills than almost any other time in the past decade. What is getting done, some grumble, falls far short of crucial.

"When we're on the House floor on Tuesday and voting on another post office, you hear members who are very angry, saying, 'Why are we here?'" said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif.




There are, in fact, significant political reasons accounting for the House's sluggish pace this year. It is more than mere chance. Moreover, passing bills and racking up debate hours may not equal effective representation.

"It doesn't mean we're not working," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. "We have a lot of responsibilities outside of Washington."

Still, the numbers are inescapable - and so is the cynical disenchantment sprouting throughout Capitol Hill.

The House was in session 46 hours and 59 minutes in January and February. Last year during the same period, the House had been in session for 80 hours and 39 minutes. The House passed eight bills in January and February. During the same period over the previous decade, the House passed an average of 11 bills.

More than legislation, though, the House this year has been embracing resolutions. The 23 resolutions passed so far have honored, commemorated and renamed. They are usually parochial, though they consume congressional time.

About 7 o'clock on the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 14, for instance, 408 House members gathered on the House floor to rename a post office in Cranston, R.I. No one objected. Now, the building shall evermore be named the Holly A. Charette Post Office.

Just a few minutes before, the House passed another resolution applauding the USO for its service to members of the military. Earlier that same day, by voice vote, the House renamed a post office in Clinton, Mass.

"Among Democratic staffers, it's a joke, the post offices and the fluff resolutions," said Scott Nishioki, chief of staff to Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.

Usually, the House manages to name a post office by a voice vote. These low-key items are scheduled for Tuesdays, on what is called the suspension calendar. That's what happened the last Tuesday the House was in session, March 14, when lawmakers renamed a post office in Francesville, Ind., in honor of World War II combat veteran and retired teacher Malcolm Melville Lawrence.

"I would say that Mac Lawrence left a deep footprint in the community of Francesville, not only as a war hero, but also as a community leader and as a teacher," Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., explained.

The week before, on March 7, the House renamed three post offices in New York, Oklahoma and Hawaii. More are on the docket for coming weeks, with each congressional workweek usually lasting between Tuesday and Thursday. The real work happens Wednesday and Thursday. But because a roll call vote can always be ordered even on a non-controversial issue, members must show up Tuesday to avoid a politically damaging low attendance record.

That irritates those who travel far from their home districts back to Washington. More broadly, Cardoza and other Democrats chastise Republican leaders for deliberately keeping the House dispersed this election year: first, members are summoned to vote on trivial matters, then they are let loose before anything else gets done. This complicates Democratic efforts to summon national attention through debate and the C-SPAN cameras.

"The reason the Republicans are not bringing us back is they don't want us talking about the problems of this country," Cardoza said.


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Ketchikan, Alaska