The Dog Days of Summer -- A Brief History of the Congressional August Recess
In our ever-increasingly, divisive times, there are few issues that both parties still fundamentally believe in: support for America’s servicemen and women, the importance of education, and the sanctity of the congressional August recess.
The nation’s capital is such a detestable place at the end of summer that, for many years, foreign diplomats actually received hardship pay for staying in town. Federal lawmakers, on the other hand, simply fled the city. Americans who believe partisan leaders created the congressional summer break because it presents the perfect time—with state fairs and Labor Day parades—for campaigning are giving lawmakers credit for a level of foresight that Washington hasn’t typically displayed. It was simply all about the weather.
John Nance Garner, who served as U.S. Speaker of the House until he became Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, said, “No good legislation ever comes out of Washington after June.” He was right, and it was for lack of trying. Until the 1930s, the U.S. House and Senate generally convened in December and stayed in town only until May or June, when temperatures and humidity inside the swamp rose to unbearable heights. So Congress took a six-month break.
Things began to change later into the FDR era. But lest you think Congress, faced with the Great Depression or the Nazi threat abroad, decided to brave the heat to face economic and geopolitical crises, think again. Instead, the installation of early air conditioning in the Senate chambers, long before most American homes enjoyed cooler indoor temperatures, enticed lawmakers to stay for the summer. (According to Carrier, only about 10 percent of American homes had air conditioning as recently as 1965.)
In the 1940s and ‘50s congressional work sessions lengthened. Sometimes lawmakers even would stay in Washington until the end of July! That trend continued and, by the 1960s, House and Senate lawmakers were in session most of the year. In 1962, Congress remained in session from January to October without a single recess. The horror! The next year the chamber enjoyed a few three-day weekends, but otherwise lawmakers worked from January to December.
Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) didn’t think the heat was good for legislative productivity. Hyperbole being nothing new to the Beltway, in 1959 she said a vacation-less calendar led to “confused thinking, harmful emotions, destructive tempers, unsound and unwise legislation, ill health” and even “the very specter of death...” She would have loved Twitter.
Sen. Smith was the first to propose a formal late summer/early fall recess in the age of air conditioning, but it wasn’t until 1971 that House and Senate lawmakers enjoyed their first official August break. And that break was, unbelievably, required by law. Congress had passed the Legislative Reorganization Act the year before, which legally required the legislative branch to sojourn for the summer unless the country was at war.
The break has been almost sacrosanct since then. Lawmakers have stayed in Washington during August only a handful of times since 1971. The Senate delayed its August recess in 1994 in an attempt to pass health care reform legislation. (They failed.) Lawmakers returned early from their summer break to hold hearings on the 9/11 Commission Report in 2004 and cut short their vacation a year later to pass a Hurricane Katrina aid package. In 2014, lawmakers stayed a bit into August to discuss immigration. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) threatened to keep his members in Washington for most of August 2017, but the upper chamber left for break on Aug. 3, much to the delight of congressional staffers and lobbyists throughout Washington.
The Senate is set to remain in session throughout this month, with Majority Leader McConnell planning to shepherd the chamber through consideration of a backlog of executive and judicial branch appointments, fiscal year 2019 spending bills to pass, and the not-so-small matter of a Supreme Court nominee to sherpa around the Capitol complex. Of course, Leader McConnell’s motives aren’t completely apolitical: there are six sitting Democratic senators sweating about their 2018 reelections, and every day they spend in the Senate chamber this summer is a day they can’t spend on the campaign trail. (Two of the three vulnerable Republican seats up for grabs this November don’t have an incumbent running, which means the GOP candidate in those races, unlike the vulnerable sitting Democrats, doesn’t have to be in the swamp.)
While lawmakers’ initial affection for the summer recess was due almost exclusively to the weather, since the first August break, the political benefits for lawmakers of spending August back home have become clear. Back in the early 1970s, Sen. George Aiken (R-Vt.) explained he worked as much at home as he did in Washington. Sen. Vance Hartke (D-Ind.) said, “The feedback you get while hitting the fish fries … gives you a totally different feeling than you get in Washington.”
With the fish fries and state fairs -- and the ubiquity of air conditioning throughout the country since the late 1960s -- the August recess has been lengthening. According to the Pew Research Center, “[T]he average length for both chambers’ election year summer recess has roughly doubled since the 1970s and early ’80s.” In the election years that fell between 1972 and 1982, the Senate spent an average of 16 days in August recess. The House spent 17 days. In more recent times, from 2006 to 2016, the average for the Senate’s August recess was 38 days while it was 36 for the House.
Florida and Nevada won’t be any cooler this month, but my guess is that’s where incumbents up for reelection, like Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), would rather be.