How Many Days Does Congress Work a Year?

Average Workweek for a Member is Longer Than You Think

113th Congress meets
House Speaker John Boehner swears in the newly elected members of the 113th Congress in the House Chambers on Jan. 3, 2013. Mark Wilson/Getty Images News

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.

But sometimes it's a reference to how little Congress appears to work, especially in light of the $174,000 base salary for its members - an amount that's more than three times the amount of money the median U.S. household earns.

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So how many does does Congress work in a year? More than you think.

Here's an explanation.

Average Number of Legislative Days

The House of Representatives has averaged 139 "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.

A legislative day is defined as any official meeting of the legislative body to do the people's business. Technically a legislative day 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.

Related: Government Shutdowns in U.S. History

Here are the number of legislative days for the House each year in recent history:

  • 2015: 157
  • 2014: 135
  • 2013: 159 
  • 2012: 153
  • 2011: 175
  • 2010: 127
  • 2009: 159
  • 2008: 119
  • 2007: 164
  • 2006: 101
  • 2005: 120
  • 2004: 110
  • 2003: 133
  • 2002: 123
  • 2001: 143

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. 

Constituent Services

Of course, there's much more to being a congressman than voting. One of the most important aspects to 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.

Wrote the National Journal's Alex Seitz-Wald: 

"Congress's laziness is so taken for granted that it's never really challenged. In reality, while there are lots of nice perks, members of Congress have a grueling job, whether in Washington or at home in their states and districts. And in an age when the two chambers don't do much, they may be better off at home anyway."

When Does Congress Adjourn?

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.