Congress spends little time at work

WASHINGTON — Nice work if you can get it.

The Senate was in session for five days last month. The House of Representatives was officially present for 11.

But not really.

The House halted business the week after the Jan. 8 shootings in Tucson out of respect for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was critically wounded while meeting with her constituents.

Still, what's with the lemonade-and-porch-swing pace?

During the first month of the last Congress, in 2009 the House met for 15 days and the Senate for 18. At the start of the one before that, the House was in town for 16 days and the Senate for 17.

Didn't November's election mean that Congress was supposed to roll up its sleeves and start fixing things?

"Symbolically, it doesn't look good," said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

The House chamber was empty this week as well. It's part of a revamped calendar from the new Republican leadership that guarantees members at least one workweek at home in their districts each month, among other changes.

"This time will be used to listen to constituents," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said in a letter to all House members after the midterm elections. "The results of these reforms should be a U.S. House of Representatives that more accurately reflects the Founders' intent... 'direct and constant control by the citizens.' "

When the House met last month, Republicans voted to repeal the health care law, a campaign promise. It was a party-line vote with no impact beyond sending a political message, because the Democratic-majority Senate voted this week against repeal.

After another party-line vote to end taxpayer-financing of presidential campaigns, House members packed up for home.

The Senate had already put the Capitol in its rear-view mirror.

"It is important to legislate in Washington, and it is equally important to be home in your states finding out what is on voters' minds," said Senate Democratic leadership spokesman Brian Fallon.