Robert Siegel of NPR’s All Things Considered reports:
Back in 1980, Rick Nolan was a three-term Democratic congressman from Minnesota. Later that year, at age 37, he chose not to seek reelection, went back home and into business and said goodbye to Congress – that is, until this year. In November, he ran and won. We spoke in his new digs at the Rayburn House office building.
Particularly, Nolan comments on how today as compared to the 1970s congress works less, AND how that may be a big part of why it works less well:
Congress no longer works in the same number of hours and the same manner that it once did. My first term of service, we worked 48 out of the 52 weeks. If you look at the schedule for the coming year, Congress is scheduled to work 32 out of the 52 weeks. Secondly, most of our weeks were four and five-day weeks and they were all day long.
Now, a day is defined quite differently. On Tuesday or Monday, you go in at 6:00 in the evening is when you have your votes scheduled. What you don’t finish up on that evening, you finish up the next day and the following morning at best.
[In the 1970s when I served] We were meeting in committees every day, getting to know one another and in the process, developing a measure of respect for one another and in the process, learning where the opportunities for cooperation, collaboration existed. Every bill that I passed, I had a Republican partner. I put together a presidential commission on world hunger.
Ben Gilman, Republican from New York, was my partner. I put together some important railroad abandonment legislation to secure those branch lines that feed the main lines. Republican Frank Skubitz from Kansas was my partner. So we worked four and five days a week. If I had my way right now, we would be meeting four and five days a week.
You can’t run a country that way. You can’t run a business that way. It just doesn’t work.
Nolan is not the first person to point to a connection between congressmen spending more of their time in home districts and being less effective in their jobs on the hill (though I acknowledge readily the vagueness of the phrase ‘effective’). I first remember reading this notion in something by Fareed Zakaria, but I haven’t been able to find the passage.
Here is Newsweek’s Lisa Miller from a while back talking about the disappearance of social and community ties between the families of congressmen that has accompanied the growing trend of congressmen maintaining households in their home districts – leaving their families behind and commuting alone to the hill for work each week:
This phenomenon has ramifications far beyond absent parents and poorly attended First Lady Lunches. It’s another component that portends a new level of Capitol Hill gridlock. Real legislating—the compromises and deal making that distinguish politics from posturing—happens only among people who know and respect each other. Family life has always been crucial to that chemistry. During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, first lady historian Carl Anthony points out, gritty negotiations with congressional Republicans, led by Gerald Ford, were often smoothed over by Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford, cultivated during long years as congressional wives.
There’s also a difference in tone. If you live across the street from your political opponent, if you know his kids, if you’ve been to dinner at his house, “it’s impossible to go up on the floor of the Senate or in the media and blast him the next day,” says Trent Lott, former Senate leader from Mississippi. If, on the other hand, you live on the road and your spouse is back home, raising the kids and running the family business by herself, bipartisan socializing might not be your first priority.
For this year’s  freshman class, backed by an anti-establishment fury that rewards those who demonstrate their independence from Washington customs, commuting is almost mandated. According to the new schedule for the House of Representatives, released in December by incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for five days each month, as well as most weekends, members are expected to be back in their home districts “to visit with employers, employees, seniors, veterans, and other constituent groups,” wrote Cantor in a letter accompanying the schedule. To offset, members will cram the legislative session into 11 percent fewer weeks than they did during the 111th Congress, with voting confined to three or four days a week.