Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Capitol Hill bids farewell to the three-day week

What is the world coming to - or at least that rather detached corner of the universe called the US House of Representatives? First the Democrats win back control of the place for the first time in a dozen years. Then Nancy Pelosi, the incoming Speaker, mutters darkly about banning smoking in the members' lobby - a bit like banning gambling in Las Vegas. And now, the poor things are actually going to have to work for a living. To which the American people would reply with a single voice - and about time, too.

In terms of value for taxpayers' money, the House must offer one of the lousiest deals going. Its 435 members are paid $165,200 (£84,500) a year, along with generous allowances for staff. In return, they have lately been working an average two days a week - to be precise, 102 days in 2006, including a rare Saturday yesterday to wrap up outstanding business before heading home for a richly deserved Christmas break. This works out at eight days less than even the infamous "do nothing" Republican-controlled Congress of 1948, with which Harry Truman made great play as he scored his upset "Dewey beats Truman" re-election win that year.

Hear Republicans tell it, and this light burden is tribute to the clockwork efficiency of the rules they have worked out. The basic principle is pretty simple. You cut the Democrats out of the process entirely and make sure your own troops march in lockstep. No long hours of messy debate over amendments and points of order, and none of that nonsense in the Senate, where a few pesky members can bring the place to a standstill. In the House, you whip the troops into line and steamroller whatever you want through. And, true-believer conservatives contend, the less lawmaking the better, if their party is to be serious about getting government out of people's lives. And what better way for a legislature to legislate less than to absent itself five days a week (fully paid, of course)?

This might make some sense if the House performed the minimum duty of any parliament, and scrutinised and approved proposed spending for various government departments. This second session of the outgoing 109th Congress hasn't even managed to do that. Having devoted much of its modest labours to issues vital to the health of the Republic, such as flag burning, indecency in broadcasting and a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, the Republicans have managed to finish only two of the 12 Bills funding government spending for the fiscal year that began in October. They did pass 374 laws, but a quarter of those were to rename government buildings.

Most importantly, the public has noticed. Behind the novelty of a woman poised to become the first female Speaker in history lies a sobering reality. The US legislature has a colossal image problem. Its appalling approval rating (25 per cent at the last count) makes even George Bush look like a rock star. In November, this unpopularity undoubtedly contributed to the rout of the Republicans who controlled it. Well may MsPelosi mock the "drive-by Republican Congress". She knows full well that if the place doesn't pull its socks up, Democrats will get the blame next time around.

So, shock of shocks, they're going to have to work a bit harder. Nothing too onerous, naturally. But the present three-day week (if Tuesday morning to Thursday lunchtime counts as three days) will go up to what might be generously interpreted as five days. Henceforth, says the new majority leader Steny Hoyer, members will have to be around to vote at 6pm on Mondays, and will have to delay the stampede to the airport until lunchtime on Friday. No matter that most of the rest of us might kill for such hours. On Capitol Hill this regimen counts as penal servitude. And for some, it could be prison without the tobacco ration.

Until now smokers have been safe. No matter that the District of Columbia, where the Capitol building is, has one of the strictest laws in the land, banning smoking from all public places. Congress, as usual, has exempted itself from laws that apply to others - and as long as Mr Hoyer's predecessor, the chain-smoking Republican John Boehner was in charge, nothing was going to change. Ms Pelosi, however, comes from San Francisco, that bastion of liberalism and enlightened living, and would dearly like to impose a ban. "I am not an advocate of smoking," she says with deliberate understatement.

But it may not be that easy. For one thing, Congressmen can smoke in their own offices (unlike ordinary office workers elsewhere in Washington). Second, the Democrats did so well in November largely because of the inroads they made in traditional Republican territory in places like Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia, tobacco states all, with Congressmen who tend to be conservatives, and smokers and proud of it. In short, the smoke-filled rooms of political legend will remain. And in the brave new world of hard work about to dawn on Capitol Hill, the smoke may be thicker than ever.