Members of Congress work fewer than half of the days in any given year, But those account for only the "legislative days," defined as an official meeting of the legislative body to do the people's business. The House works about one day out of three, and the Senate works a little more than that, according to federal records.
You've probably heard the phrase "do-nothing Congress" at least once in your life, and it's often a jab at the inability of lawmakers to reach common ground and pass important spending bills. Sometimes it's a reference to how little Congress appears to work, especially in light of the $174,000 base salary for its members - more than three times the amount of money the median U.S. household earns.
Here's an explanation of how many days Congress works every year.
Number of Days Congress Works in Session a Year
The House of Representatives has averaged 138 "legislative days" a year since 2001, according to records kept by the Library of Congress. That's about one day of work every three days, or fewer than three days a week. The Senate, on the other hand, was in session an average of 162 days a year over the same time period.
Technically a legislative day in the House can span more than 24 hours. A legislative day ends only when the session is adjourned. The Senate works a little differently. A legislative day often stretches beyond the boundaries of the 24-hour workday day and sometimes week. That doesn't mean the Senate is meeting around the clock. It just means that a legislative session merely recesses but doesn't adjourn after a day's work.
Here are the number of legislative days for the House and Senate each year in recent history:
- 2016: 131 in the House, 165 in the Senate.
- 2015: 157 in the House, 168 in the Senate.
- 2014: 135 in the House, 136 in the Senate.
- 2013: 159 in the House, 156 in the Senate.
- 2012: 153 in the House, 153 in the Senate.
- 2011: 175 in the House, 170 in the Senate.
- 2010: 127 in the House, 158 in the Senate.
- 2009: 159 in the House, 191 in the Senate.
- 2008: 119 in the House, 184 in the Senate.
- 2007: 164 in the House, 190 in the Senate.
- 2006: 101 in the House, 138 in the Senate.
- 2005: 120 in the House, 159 in the Senate.
- 2004: 110 in the House, 133 in the Senate.
- 2003: 133 in the House, 167 in the Senate.
- 2002: 123 in the House, 149 in the Senate.
- 2001: 143 in the House, 173 in the Senate.
House Averages 18 Hours of Work a Week
There's a little more to this analysis than just the number of days lawmakers are scheduled to cast votes. A 2013 analysis conducted by The New York Times found that the House was in session for 942 hours that year, or about 18 hours a week.
That level of work, The Times noted, was the least by any Congress in a non-election year in nearly a decade. By comparison, the House worked
- 1,700 hours in 2007,
- 1,350 hours in 2005,
- and 1,200 hours in 2011.
The same went for the Senate, which had 99 voting days in 2013.
Some attempts have been made to force members of Congress to work full weeks. In 2015, for example, a Republican lawmaker from Florida, Rep. David Jolly, introduced legislation that would have required the House to be in session 40 hours a week when members of the House were in Washington, D.C."A work week in Washington should be no different than a work week in every other town across the nation,” Jolly said at the time. Jolly's measure failed to gain traction.
There's much more to being a congressman than voting. One of the most important aspects of the job is being accessible and responsive to the people who voted them into office. It's called constituent service: answering phone calls from the public, holding town-hall meetings on important issues, and assisting members of the 435 congressional districts with their problems.
The nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation has reported:
"Members work long hours (70 hours a week when Congress is in session), endure unequaled public scrutiny and criticism, and sacrifice family time to fulfill work responsibilities."
The 70-hour work week reported by members of Congress is more than twice the average length of the work week for Americans.
When Congress Adjourns
Congressional sessions begin in January of odd-numbered years and typically end in December of the same year. Congress adjourns at the end of each session. There are two sessions for each sitting of Congress. The Constitution forbids either the Senate or the House to adjourn for more than three days without the permission of the other chamber.