Forget the minimum wage. Or outsourcing jobs overseas. The labor issue most on the minds of members of Congress yesterday was their own: They will have to work five days a week starting in January.
, the Maryland Democrat who will become House majority leader and is writing the schedule for the next Congress, said members should expect longer hours than the brief week they have grown accustomed to.
"I have bad news for you," Hoyer told reporters. "Those trips you had planned in January, forget 'em. We will be working almost every day in January, starting with the 4th."
The reporters groaned. "I know, it's awful, isn't it?" Hoyer empathized.
For lawmakers, it is awful, compared with what they have come to expect. For much of this election year, the legislative week started late Tuesday and ended by Thursday afternoon -- and that was during the relatively few weeks the House wasn't in recess.
Next year, members of the House will be expected in the Capitol for votes each week by 6:30 p.m. Monday and will finish their business about 2 p.m. Friday, Hoyer said.
With the new calendar, the Democrats are trying to project a businesslike image when they take control of Congress in January. House and Senate Democratic leaders have announced an ambitious agenda for their first 100 hours and say they are adamant about scoring legislative victories they can trumpet in the 2008 campaigns.
Hoyer and other Democratic leaders say they are trying to repair the image of Congress, which was so anemic this year it could not meet a basic duty: to approve spending bills that fund government. By the time the gavel comes down on the 109th Congress on Friday, members will have worked a total of 103 days. That's seven days fewer than the infamous "Do-Nothing Congress" of 1948.
Hoyer said members can bid farewell to extended holidays, the kind that awarded them six weekdays to relax around Memorial Day, when most Americans get a single day off. He didn't mention the month-long August recess, the two-week April recess or the weeks off in February, March and July.
He said members need to spend more time in the Capitol to pass laws and oversee federal agencies. "We are going to meet sufficient times, so the committees can do their jobs on behalf of the American people," he said.
‘Keeping us up here eats away at families’
For lawmakers within a reasonable commute of Washington, longer weeks are not a burden -- although they are likely to cut into members' fundraising and campaigning activities. But for members from Alaska and Hawaii, the West Coast, or rural states, the new schedule will mean less time at home and more stress.
"Keeping us up here eats away at families," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who typically flies home on Thursdays and returns to Washington on Tuesdays. "Marriages suffer. The Democrats could care less about families -- that's what this says."
Time away from Washington is just as important to being an effective member of Congress as time spent in the Capitol, Kingston added. "When I'm here, people call me Mr. Congressman. When I'm home, people call me 'Jack, you stupid SOB, why did you vote that way?' It keeps me grounded."
Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), who had intended to retire this year, only to be persuaded to run again, wondered whether the new schedule was more than symbolic. "If we're doing something truly productive, that's one thing," he said. "If it's smoke-and-mirrors hoopla, that's another."
Senate leaders have not set their schedule, but the upper chamber generally works a longer week than the House, though important votes or hearings are usually not scheduled on Mondays or Fridays.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), one of the architects of the lighter workweek, put the best Republican face on Hoyer's new schedule.
"They've got a lot more freshmen then we do," he said of the Democrats. "That schedule will make it incredibly difficult for those freshmen to establish themselves in their districts. So we're all for it."
The new schedule poses a headache for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who runs her 7-year-old daughter's Brownie troop meetings on Monday afternoons in Weston, Fla. "I'll have to talk to the other mothers and see if we can move it to the weekend," she said.
Setting a calendar that satisfies 435 members is impossible, said the current majority leader, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who will become minority leader in January. "Between the travel issues, the members' work schedules, the family and district issues, it was a Rubik's cube," he said.
But most Democrats, some still giddy from their election victories, seemed game.
"It's long overdue," said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who lives in Napa Valley and will have to leave his home at 3 a.m. on Sundays to catch a flight to Washington in time for work Mondays. "I didn't come here to turn around and go back home."
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.