By Peter Hong
As Americans celebrated the two hundred and forty-first anniversary of our nation’s independence, our representatives in Congress celebrated with us – in recess.
That should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the work habits of Congress. According to the calendar put out by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the House of Representatives will be in official session for only 147 days this year. That means your elected representatives will be off for 218 days – about 60% of the year. The average full-time employee may find this particularly outrageous, given that he or she generally puts in 240 days each year.
240 days versus 147 days? At a minimum annual salary of $174,000? It’s no wonder that Congress’ job approval numbers seldom break 20%.
Of the 218 days Congress is out of session, the bulk of the time Congress is officially in recess. Congress generally schedules weeklong, sometimes two-week recesses around federal holidays and Easter/Passover.
Congress also takes the entire month of August off. While Congress has traditionally broken for the summer since its second session in 1791, August recess was only made official in 1970 when Congress (who else) passed the “Legislative Reorganization Act” (LRO). Yes, Congress enshrined its own summer break in federal law.
According to Senate Historian Betty Koed, August recess was created because Congressional sessions, by the early 1960s, had grown from part-time affairs to full-time, year-long assemblies with few scheduled breaks. For example, the Senate in 1962 met from January to October with no recess; the following year, it convened in January and adjourned in December, taking no longer than a three-day weekend off. Yes, there was a day when members of Congress worked – just like you.
Since the statutorily required August recess was first invoked on August 6, 1971, Congress has readily complied, except in rare cases, such as in 2005, when Congress returned mid-recess to pass emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Also, the LRO suspends the recess if “a state of war exists pursuant to a declaration of war by the Congress,” which hasn’t happened since 1941. Barring war or an act of God, Congress shuts its doors for the summer.
Though recesses are referred to as “district work periods,” lawmakers use them for various purposes: constituent work and meetings, overseas travel, fundraising, and yes – personal vacation. The five-week August recess is particularly popular for official travel abroad called “Congressional Delegations” (CODELs). While CODELs do involve high-level meetings with world leaders and some real work, they can be used to mask taxpayer-funded trips under the guise of official business. One particular CODEL to Israel in 2012 generated an FBI probe when it was discovered that after a night of carousing, lawmakers stripped down for a late-night swim in the Sea of Galilee.
Most Americans are dissatisfied – rightly and wrongly — with this Congress, but the frustration of many might have been placated had Congress actually accomplished something in its first 84 legislative days. Having already completed 57% of its schedule this year, the top accomplishment of the 115th Congress is the Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch – no small victory. Congress also passed about 15 resolutions under the Congressional Review Act rescinding various regulations issued in the waning days of the Obama Administration.
Otherwise, the trophy mantle is pretty much empty and rapidly gathering dust. The House passed its version of Obamacare overhaul, but the Senate left town without taking a single vote. The same goes for defanging the job-killing Dodd-Frank Act and the Frankenstein monster it created, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The budget is in shambles with liberal Republicans refusing to pass needed spending reductions for sacred cow entitlement programs, like Medicaid and food stamps. Neither tax reform nor infrastructure is even on the launching pad.
And the much-promised wall between the U.S.-Mexican border the most tangible, symbolic reminder of the 2016 campaign? Silence.
What Congress did pass in May was a $1.1 trillion spending bill to keep the government open till September 30th. The bill maintained so many liberal priorities that the Washington Post declared it a “win” for Democrats, enough to give the resistance confidence they can block the Trump agenda.
So, if Republican voters are frustrated and wondering why they voted and are stuck paying for a Congress that hasn’t delivered, they’ve got plenty of evidence to back them up. And with only 63 legislative days scheduled for the rest of the year, a budget left to pass, the debt ceiling set to expire in September, and distractions like North Korea emerging, the prospects aren’t promising. If only Congress could buy some more time.
They can – but it’s going to cost them their cherished August recess.
In June, the House Freedom Caucus called on Speaker Paul Ryan to cancel the August recess “to accomplish the priorities of the American people.” As it became increasingly clear that the Senate would not vote on its health care bill before the July recess, ten senators signed a letter calling for the August recess to be shortened or canceled. Organizations like Americans for Limited Government have pushed lawmakers to cancel their summer break so Congress can “get to work.”
Congressional leaders would be wise to heed these suggestions. Voters entrusted them with power in November to pass an agenda for making America great again; in its first 84 official days, Congress has come up woefully short.
Our elected officials behave much like schoolchildren. Historically, the prospect of losing out on recess time has been the only consistent way to goad them into action. With the clock working against them, lawmakers’ only option for delivering on even part of what they promised may be declaring that this time, school’s not out for summer.
Peter Hong contributing editor at Americans for Limited Government.