It’s (almost) August in Washington which means that Congress (and a good part of the city) will go into recess. This year, however, there’s a twist: The Senate is scheduled to work through most of the month. Earlier this summer, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he was canceling most of the chamber’s recess so that senators could focus on passing spending bills and getting President Trump’s nominees approved. The House went into recess last Thursday.

As Daniel Schuman writes, appropriations will continue to dominate the congressional agenda in August, with another minibus teed up in the Senate this week. The House is currently scheduled to be in session for only 11 days before the end of the fiscal year, September 30, and for a total of 19 days before the November election. The Senate has 22 session days scheduled before the end of the fiscal year, and 40 days before Election Day.

The August recess has been a congressional tradition since 1791 but became a statutory requirement with the passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. Given the Capitol’s lack of modern ventilation systems, the break was initially a way for members to escape Washington’s oppressive heat and humidity. And up until the 20th century, many members held other jobs and wanted time at home to focus on those professions. Serving in Congress was not a full-time career back then, and no ethics law barred members from holding multiple jobs.

As the institution grew and member responsibilities expanded, Congress spent more time in session. By the 1960s, newer members with younger families began pressing for a more predictable legislative calendar. According to Senate Historian Don Ritchie, these members “were looking for regularity and wanted to be able to promise their families in January that they could have an August vacation.” The 1960s were also a time of intense legislating, with lawmakers taking up major issues like the Vietnam War, President Johnson’s Great Society programs, and civil rights. The workload kept them in session through several summers during that decade.

The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 presented members with an opportunity to make a longstanding tradition legal. The first official August recess began on August 6, 1971. Congress traditionally returns to Washington after Labor Day weekend.

Business obviously continues while Congress is in recess – the action just doesn’t take place on the floor. And should circumstances warrant, Congress can be called back into session during a recess. Pushing the recess start date back or canceling recess altogether are also (less popular) options. In theory, a looming deadline should force action and incentivize members to get their work done before leaving town. In practice, this happens less and less. The broken appropriations process exemplifies this failure.

With majority control of both chambers at stake, there’s also a BIG electoral incentive for members to get out of town and campaign. August recess during an election year thus marks the beginning of the campaign “silly season.”

The LegBranch blog will continue to post during the August recess, but on a less frequent basis.

Marian Currinder
Marian Currinder is a permanent staffer of the U.S. House of Representatives' Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress as of December 2019. ...

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