No, August Recess Doesn’t Mean Congress Is Going on Vacation

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You are invited to August’s (Quasi -)Recess. Kickball will not take place.

Congress is ready to head home to tend to constituents’ concerns, cut ribbons, and eat plenty of fried food at state fairs and community carnivals for some fits and starts in coming weeks. This local care comes just 100 days before Election Day. Sure, it looks like the House—or at least enough proxy holders—will be coming back the second week of August to maybe pass a tax, climate, and infrastructure bill, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find many lawmakers lingering in D.C. this month to pick up where the Senate left off. These are both pragmatic and political reasons. Washington doesn’t have any voters that matter, D.C. has a lot of misery right now, so even those with the best seats could be in danger if they neglect them.

Congress has faced an identity problem for years. “Recess” conjures images of dodgeball, “horse” under the hoops, and hopscotch. It sounds childish for most, and suggests lawmakers are blowing off some steam after a PB&J and before an afternoon of spelling drills and math problems. The truth is, many lawmakers are happy to remain in Washington rather than return home. After all, most lawmakers find deeper pockets in Washington donors than back home, the folks looking to grind their ears have far more nuanced patience for legislative realities than their constituents, and it’s tough to pick up your dinner around the corner without at least someone recognizing you and hauling off on a two-bit tirade informed by social media. Lunchables may seem more tempting if that last confrontation is avoided.

The time spent away from Washington is still valuable. The grip and grin of the dog shelter volunteer makes for great moments on the newscast’s midday newscast. It usually comes in just after the weather report, but before the high school sports features. But if you’re a military veteran caught up in red tape, a small-community fiscal officer trying to get an answer from an accounting bureaucrat in a regional office, or a high schooler looking to win a recommendation to an elite military academy, having your member of Congress nearby is invaluable. Despite Americans’ dislike of Congress being unresponsive and outof touch, lawmakers will grab any opportunity to look great. It’s good politics to unclog a political drain, and proximity makes things pressing.

The August Recess is a vacation that the majority of the political armchairs consider a vacation. Lawmakers get the jab and have even taken to calling it a “district work period,” trying to prove to the handful of constituents who know where to find the floor calendar on the Majority Whip’s page that they aren’t spending the weeks dozing.

There’s truth in this. Direct contact with constituents is the best form of democracy. Most lawmakers are home-prods this. It’s easy to ignore a comment line but tough to dodge a local fire chief who wants to know why his department didn’t get the same cash as his buddy down the highway. A member who is at home spends twice the time on constituent work than when he is in D.C. Put another way: having the member sleeping at home means they’re doing more of the work voters say they want.

So while there will be plenty of eye-rolling and sighing about Congress’ perceived laziness, they’re still working more than most folks: 59 hours per week when in their districts, compared to 70 hours when Congress is in session, according to one survey. So it’s not likely to be any sort of break from the demands of the gig. It’s just that their bosses—the people—are a whole lot closer.

And the entire House and a full third of the Senate have a performance review come November; it’s called an election.

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