The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In defense of Congress’s summer ‘vacation’

It's that time of year again. Congress is preparing for its summer recess. They'll leave town Friday and they won't be back till Sept. 9. Between now and then, the rest of Washington will occupy itself by whining about Congress going on another of its endless vacations.

Let's not.

The problem here is vocabulary. Congress's "recess" isn't like the recess you enjoyed as a kid. No one plays kickball. There aren't juice boxes. (Well, there might be some juice boxes.) When Congress goes on recess, they're still working. It's just a different kind of work. The kind people tend to say they want Congress doing more of.

"People tend to judge Congress by the part of the job they can see," says Bradford Fitch, head of the Congressional Management Foundation. "And the part they can see is the legislative work on C-SPAN. But Congress has a representational responsibility as well. It’s meeting with constituent groups who come to Washington. It’s responding to communications. But it’s also going back home and engaging in activities in the district that help them understand what their constituents think."

The worst part about being a member of Congress is that these two jobs happen in different places. The legislating happens in Washington. But your constituents are back in your district, or if you're a senator, your state. And they get mad if they think you've "gone Washington." But they also get mad if you miss a bunch of votes.

So members of Congress get caught -- literally -- coming and going. Too much time in Washington, and you're out-of-touch. Too much time back homem and you're not doing your job.

Hence all the recesses. Congress spends a lot of time "out of session" because that's the time members of Congress can spend back home in their districts. These aren't vacations. They're work of a different kind.

As it happens, we have pretty good data on this. The Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed members of Congress on how they spend their time. The results were released anonymously, so members has no reason to lie, and the CMF has access to the actual schedules of some members, so they can see if the self-reporting varies wildly from the day-to-day agenda.

The numbers to keep in mind here are 70 and 59. That's the number of hours, respectively, members of Congress report working when they're in Washington vs. back home in their district. So it's true that your senator doesn't work quite as hard when she heads home. But she's still putting in a 60-hour week. That's not a vacation.

He recalls a story a congressman told him about coaching first base at his son's little league game when a woman rushed down from the stands and began lecturing him about Middle East policy. "He couldn't go anywhere!" Says Fitch. "He was stuck at first base. It was a perfect advocacy moment."

This is, in theory, what we want: for members of Congress to spend lots of time at home, absorbing the commonsense and decency that perfumes the air outside Washington. Of course, in practice, it works out slightly differently.

Most members of Congress represent safe -- often gerrymandered -- districts where their constituents like and agree with them. Moreover, the constituents who seek them out are likely to either be particularly polarized or to want something very specific very badly. That woman who headed to first base to lecture her congressman about Middle East policy probably wasn't a disinterested moderate on the issue. That factory owner whose plant is about to close wants tax breaks, not sympathy.

So members of Congress head back to Washington and spend their time fighting with the other side and trying to extract special concessions for the people and businesses back home. Neither pursuit does much to lift their approval ratings. And then, because they didn't get anything done, we're furious when they leave Washington for another recess.

This Congress is on track to be the least productive Congress since we began keeping track. Come the fall, they may end up badly hurting the economy by shutting down the government, breaching the debt ceiling, or both. The one big thing they were supposed to get done was immigration reform, and while the Senate delivered, the effort may well die in the House.

There are, in other words, plenty of reasons to hate Congress. But the fact that they carve out a lot of time to go back home and meet with the people they're supposed to be representing isn't one of them. The problem with Congress isn't what they do on recess, it's what they don't do when they're in session.