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Congress Takes a Break


Is it fair to think of Congressional recesses as vacations?

Ah, spring break. It’s not only college students who long for a few lazy days come March and April. Congress adjourned last week and now is in the middle of a two-week “district work period,” which most politicos refer to instead as recess. Unlike the students who flock to Miami, though, lawmakers likely aren’t sitting by the pool or even resting much. They are back in their states and districts meeting with constituents, coordinating with local elected officials, or off on a “congressional delegation”— a fact-finding trip that groups of lawmakers take to learn about a particular issue or agenda item. (You may recall that President Trump infamously canceled a congressional delegation that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was scheduled to lead in the midst of the government shutdown in January to Brussels, Egypt and Afghanistan.)


This latest recess is Congress’ fourth of 2019. Lawmakers took a full week off in each of the first three months of the year, which is about average. The inside-the-Beltway newspaper Roll Call notes that, on average, there are about 15 congressional recesses each year.

That seems like a lot of time off, but Roll Call determined that lawmakers work about 59 hours a week when they are back in their districts during a recess (compared to about 70 hours a week while in Washington). The paper also argues that lawmakers of centuries past used to work “far less” than members of Congress do today.


Is that right? Do Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Devin Nunes (R-CA) put in more time for taxpayers than John Brown, Daniel Carroll and Benjamin Goodhue, who were all members of the 1st United States Congress?


Let’s look at the calendar for the U.S. House of Representatives over time.


Reps. Brown, Carroll and Goodhue actually were pretty busy, as one might expect during the first meeting of a newly-formed national legislature. The 1st Congress was in session a total of 404 days from March 1789 to March 1791. (Today, each new session of Congress starts in January. The U.S. Constitution originally said Congress had to meet at least once a year and it had to convene on the first Monday in December, “unless they shall by law appoint a different day.” Congress’s start date was altered that first year, in 1789, when the 1st Congress convened on March 4. Congress would alter the beginning of its session 17 more times by 1820. It wasn’t until the Constitution’s 20th amendment was ratified in 1933 that that noon on the 3rd day of January was established as Congress’s permanent start date.)

After the 1st Congress, the number of legislative days in session plummeted. The 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th congresses met an average of 242 days over their two-year terms.


Contrast that with the days in session over most recent four completed congresses. The U.S. House met for 323 days during the 115th Congress, which adjourned in December 2018. House lawmakers were in session for 286, 295, and 328 days during the 114th, 113th, and 112th congresses, respectively, for an average of 308 days in session.


In other words, House lawmakers today spend about two more months doing business in the nation’s capital than their earliest predecessors did.


It’s remarkable how short some House sessions actually were in the first 150 years of our history as a nation. The first session of the 37th Congress met for only 28 days in total throughout 1861 despite the fact that the Civil War was brewing. (After the members of the 36th Congress left office in early March 1861, House lawmakers in the 37th Congress actually didn’t convene until July 4, almost three full months after Confederate soldiers attacked the Union Army at Fort Sumter on April 12.)


Lawmakers in the nineteen-teens spent a lot more time in Washington, D.C. The 63rd Congress met for a total of 438 days from April 1913 to March 1915 to enact President Woodrow Wilson’s robust agenda that included tariff and anti-trust reform, the creation of the Federal Reserve and the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission.


As Congress found itself with more work, and with the means (the airplane and, critically for the hot, humid Washington summers, air conditioning) to both get more easily around the country and to endure July in the nation’s capital, the number of days in session stayed high relative to the republic’s early years. (By the way, ever wonder who pays for lawmakers’ air travel? You do. Members of Congress today pay for their plane tickets with their Members’ Representational Allowance, which is set by law each year. According to the Congressional Research Service, “each Representative can choose how much to allocate to travel versus personnel or supplies,” but taxpayers pay for it all.)


While being a member of Congress has evolved into a full-time job, in most state legislative chambers around the country, serving as an elected official is a much different experience that still looks quite a bit like it did for America’s early members of Congress. In fact, about four-fifths of the states actually restrict the amount of time lawmakers can meet. In Wyoming, for example, in odd years legislators can convene for only 40 legislative days. That number is cut in half in even-numbered years. Texas’ legislature meets every other year for up to 140 calendar days. New York and Pennsylvania are two of the few states that have no restrictions on the amount of time lawmakers can meet.


One reason the sessions are shorter in the states is because citizen lawmakers nearly always have other “day” jobs. Former Georgia House Speaker Thomas Murphy (D), who was the longest-serving statehouse speaker in the nation until he lost reelection in 2002, told Pew Research Center, “If you didn’t have a limited period, you wouldn't have anybody to serve.”

But don’t state legislatures need more time to attend to the people’s work?


Not according to the South Carolina Policy Council. In 2012, it argued its state legislative session, which at 143 days was three times the length of Virginia’s, was too long. The Council noted, “Visit the gallery of the South Carolina House or Senate on any day of session, and you’ll likely hear lawmakers intermittently proposing resolutions – resolutions congratulating high school basketball teams on victories, memorializing Congress, naming roads after noteworthy people (frequently themselves), and creating more state symbols. During the 2012 legislative session, lawmakers proposed 1,656 of these insignificant gestures. As if to prove their insignificance, all but 38 passed.”


Sounds like someone needs a break.

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