The Washington Post

Congress on working in August: It’s against the law!


U.S. students — and future lawmakers ? –on their spring break enjoy drinks at a beach in Cancun on March 20, 2011. (Victor Ruiz Garcia/Reuters)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cast doubt Monday on whether Congress would have time to pass an overhaul of  the Veterans Affairs Department and deal with the border crisis before the August 1 congressional summer recess, our colleague Ed O’Keefe reported.

Wait a minute! Is there some provision in the Constitution — a secret Amendment XXVII.5? —  that forbids these hardworking lawmakers to exert themselves into August?

Well, no. But, as it turns out, there is indeed a law, the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, which says the House and Senate shall call it quits “not later than July 31 of each year or, in the case of an odd-numbered year,” take off “from that Friday in August which occurs at least thirty days before the first Monday in September (Labor Day) of such year to the second day after Labor Day.”

(The statute says it’s inoperative anytime a “state of war exists pursuant to a declaration of war by the Congress,” but that hasn’t happened since 1941.)

The reason for the 1970 law, according to a brief history of the August recess by the associate Senate historian Betty Koed, is that, by the early 1960s, sessions “had crept well into autumn. In 1962, the Senate met from January to October and the next year started in January and “adjourned in December with no break longer than a three-day weekend. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield said he no longer recognized his wife during daylight hours,” Koed wrote last July.

Younger members, led by Sen. Gale McGee (D-Wyo.), pushed through the 1970 law, was first invoked on Aug. 6, 1971. Since then, Congress has typically complied with it, recessing before the first week of August and returning after Labor Day.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t come back if both houses agree to do so. “There have been rare cases when they’ve come back mid-recess,” Koed wrote, such as when they returned in 2005 to pass some legislation to help out folks devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Of course our lawmakers are exhausted after a grueling few months of posturing and bloviating. And our hearts go out to them. But veterans and kids? Really?

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.

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