WASHINGTON — As a new poll reveals the lowest level of public satisfaction with Congress on record, a bipartisan group of senators is pitching a plan to make members do what is expected of other dedicated Americans: Show up for their jobs and actually work.
The Make Congress Work initiative is a package of 12 reforms, some of which seem shockingly basic.
One, for example, would require lawmakers to work three five-day weeks a month in Washington and one in their home districts. Many lawmakers spend Friday traveling home and Monday traveling back to Washington, leaving only three days a week to get anything done.
Another would institute monthly bipartisan meetings in both chambers. Members now can go years without talking to the opposition, if they want, except in a committee meeting or regular session.
“We've got to start changing some things to get people to come to agreement and stop being so selfish and insisting on their own way,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Most of the changes would not require new laws, only a commitment from Congress that even the plan's supporters suspect will not be forthcoming.
With no real mechanism to force Congress to reform, a group called No Labels is sponsoring an online petition at nolabels.org with a goal of mobilizing 750,000 Americans.
No Labels is a nonpartisan group that believes government is broken.
The American public seems to agree. In a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, two of three respondents said most members of Congress should be voted out of office in 2012. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 42 percent of those surveyed said the current Congress is one of the worst.
Members of Congress are aware that their approval rating has dropped to just 9 percent.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is among those supporting the reforms, such as withholding pay if Congress misses a budget deadline.
“If we're not doing our jobs here in Washington, D.C., like any other, we shouldn't be paid,” he said.
Nelson, who was elected to the U.S. House in 1978, recalled a time when Democratic leader Tip O'Neill and Republican leader Bob Michel were friends.
“They'd had their political fights, but at the end of the day, they had the basis of a relationship that they could come together and help forge the consensus in order to govern the country,” Nelson said. “Unfortunately, today we've reached an era in politics of mean-spiritedness, excessive partisanship, ideological rigidity and intolerance.
“Nothing can get done until more members set aside partisanship.”
Along with partisanship, some believe there's a lack of work ethic on Capitol Hill.
As the economy was melting down and lawmakers fought over a deal to raise the debt ceiling, No Labels tracked their attendance and bullied them into canceling several planned recesses.
Even adding days to their original schedule, House members were in session only 15 days in June, senators only 17 days. In July, they worked 22 and 20 days, respectively.
“People weren't even showing up for work,” said Mark McKinnon, a political adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign and to former President George W. Bush.
McKinnon, one of the founders of No Labels, wrote in an opinion piece in The Daily Beast:
“Many people understandably think the biggest problem with Congress is the people in it. But we effectively ‘threw the bums out' in the 2008 and 2010 elections, and the dysfunction just got worse.
“The 2012 election will be no panacea.”
Because changing the players made so little difference, No Labels and its supporters now advocate changing the rules.