Last Thursday, the Senate joined the House on a month-long summer recess. This break comes after both chambers took a week off in February, two in April, and one around the Fourth of July. The House took a week off in May, and both chambers’ schedules include several seemingly random three- or four-day weekends throughout the year. After Congress comes back in session in September, its schedule still shows the House taking a week off in late September and another in mid-October, the Senate taking a week off in early October, both chambers taking off a week around Thanksgiving, and Congress closing up shop for the year on the evening of December 15.
To casual observers, in fact, this seems like too much down time, especially given how little Congress has achieved this year and how many challenges await legislators this fall. Even a fair chunk of Republicans in Congress pushed their leadership to cancel this August recess so they could actually get shit done.
But it’s slightly unfair to blame the lack of accomplishments on a dearth of working hours. Congress has actually slated the most legislative working days for itself since 2010. Frequent recesses are a historical tradition for Congress, and the big August one is actually mandated by law. And they’re all framed not as vacations, but as time for legislators to do part of their jobs that can’t be done in DC: listening to the people they’re meant to represent.
Congress started taking summers off as soon as it was officially established. Originally, this was a matter of practicality. Legislating was a part-time job, requiring six months in DC every year and allowing six at home for other endeavors. With travel so difficult, even in the era of steam trains, these sessions happened in one solid burst, broken only by the days Congress chose to give itself off here and there under its constitutional authorities. Because Washington was miserable in the summer (and still is, it sitting on a swamp and all), they loaded those months into the winter and spring, then took the summer and fall off to escape the heat. They broke this tradition to meet in the summer on rare occasion—say, during a major war or after a presidential death.
In the mid-20th century, Congress’s working periods grew longer thanks to a constitutional amendment modifying the legislature’s schedule, the professionalization of representative politicking, the advent of air conditioning, and the expansion of the federal government’s responsibilities and ambitions. By the 1960s, the Vietnam War and major legislative pushes, like Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, were stretching Congress out so long that many legislators worried they couldn’t find any time to go home and meet with their constituents, much less see their families, even with the aid of rapid jet travel.
After years of advocacy, especially on the part of younger legislators with families, in 1970 Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act, birthing the modern legislative scheduling system: Just before the start of every Congressional session in January, party leaders meet to hash out which days they’ll work. They carve out long periods of time off around President’s Day, Easter, the Fourth of July, and Memorial Day, sprinkling in three- and four-day weekends, and often set an ideal adjournment date in early October; this is their constitutional prerogative and by now a custom. But they are required, under the LRA of 1970, to take a month off starting no later than July 31 unless the country at war or they vote to extend their working period. This year’s recesses accorded with these modern norms; the August recess was meant to run from July 28 to September 5.
None of these recesses are technically vacations. Legislators can get tetchy if you refer to them as such. They’re “work breaks” or “home-district periods,” because they are all framed as times not to decompress, but to host town halls, meet with community leaders, and otherwise roam about amongst one’s constituents to get a read on local reactions to Congress and priorities.
“It’s easy to frame this as ‘doing their job’ versus ‘taking a vacation,'” Congressional procedures expert Scott Meinke told me about a month ago, when internal and external demands to nix the August recess were heating up. “I don’t think that reflects a good understanding of Congress. The work members do in their districts in the summer is part of their job as representatives.”
In truth, there’s no rule governing how legislators use recesses. Some do take vacations, or go on delegations abroad (which can read as vacations in disguise) rather than go home and do constituent work. There’s usually more in-district work done in election years, although that’s more about campaigning than real deep work on behalf of constituents. Still, even in an odd-numbered year like this one, recesses do lead to tons of valid work and public forums; this month will witness over 100 Republican and 86 Democratic town halls across the nation, not to mention countless other constituent meetings and community outreach efforts. These forums, and the time afforded by recesses, are vital for advocacy groups to make their cases. Recesses are the only time many can get a legislator’s full attention.
And even those on actual vacation can never truly turn off, especially in the Trump era. Although on a 17-day golf vacation himself, the president can’t shut his crisis-spewing gob for a moment. Legislators always find themselves compelled to drop whatever they’re doing and react to him.
Recesses also provide Congress with arbitrary but effective functional deadlines, which can push legislators into last minute gear on nuts and bolts governance they shun for big-ticket debates when given the time. Case in point, the flurry of executive nominations confirmed and simple, uncontroversial bills passed through the Senate just before the August recess this year.
“Congress moves legislation when deadlines loom,” said Meinke. “The recess is a big deadline that the leadership might want to keep around,” especially the August one, despite dissent.
Congress can cancel or shorten any recess, even its mandated August break. And it has done so on several recent occasions, to respond to a major national crisis like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or to pass an important legislative package like the Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act, granting states $26 billion to pay Medicaid costs and teachers’ salaries in 2010. On July 11, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he would cut this year’s August recess for his chamber by two weeks to slam out healthcare reform. But after the Republican healthcare plan fell apart in late July he started the recess only a few days late, even though some Republicans had things they wanted to work on.
Given how many Republicans have skipped town halls this year to avoid confrontations with protesters, and all the other stalled agenda items the GOP could have moved on this month, some might call this summer break particularly unearned and unwarranted. And this is a really dysfunctional Congress , even by the low standards of the modern era, which might need even more legislative days to get things done. But that doesn’t mean that recesses are the problem. This Congress is the problem.
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.