The intern — who, to be honest, made nearly all of the calls — quickly discovered that no one wanted to actually share their calendars. Because those district-level meetings with constituents were not really how they occupied most of their months off. Perhaps they approach August with plans to reshape the world but, like America in March 2020, find that their productivity is not quite what they anticipated.
Over the course of the past four decades, members of the House and Senate have been in session for an average of about 14 percent of the days in any given August, well below the 24 percent of days worked in the holiday-riddled month of December. The numbers for the Senate are inflated, by the way, since that chamber holds pro forma sessions every three days to avoid being officially in recess — and, in years past, to stymie presidential efforts to use those recesses to appoint nominees to the administration.
(The high-water mark since 1979 was when the House was in session for 87 percent of the days in October 1990. If you’re curious, five out of seven days — a workweek — is 71 percent. The House and the Senate have, combined, passed that mark in eight of the 1,008 months since January 1979.)
Because this is an understood part of the gig, it serves as a point of pressure for legislators who are eager to get things done. All it takes is a senator or representative to bop over to the media and mournfully suggest that the chamber will have no choice but to work through the August recess to spur some sort of response from his or her colleagues. Imagine a teacher at a school telling the PTA that he’s afraid the faculty will need to teach through their summer break and you’ll get a sense of how such pronouncements go over.
So when Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) suggests that he supports working through the recess, as he did this week, this should not be seen as a proposal that is exceptional in the grand and illustrious history of governance. It is, instead, a legislator using a tactic that comes up pretty much every summer as a way to put pressure on his peers to do more than they’re doing.
For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last year suggested that the House work through the recess until a relief package for the coronavirus pandemic could be passed. The year before that, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) asked Pelosi to get the House to work through its break to get more things done. He was echoing a similar call on the Senate side, one that had also been made in 2018 by Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and others. In 2017, it was the entire House Freedom Caucus that requested Congress work through the August recess to reach the vague goal of “accomplishing the priorities of the American people.”
In 2016, it was Wittman again, pushing Republican leaders to finalize the appropriations process. In 2014, Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) thought the recess should be skipped to secure the Highway Trust Fund. In 2013, Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) wanted to pass spending bills. In 2012, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) hoped to work on budget sequestration. You’ll notice a lot of funding issues; the end of the fiscal year is Sept. 30 and there’s a push to ensure that spending is in line before that arrives. It often isn’t.
Anyway, where were we? Oh, right: 2011, when it was then-Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) who wanted an economic relief bill. And before that, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who in 2009 wanted to finish President Barack Obama’s health-care proposal. In 2007, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) thought it made sense to forgo the recess to work on an ethics package.
In 2005, it was Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.): withdraw troops from Iraq. In 2004, Kind again: hold hearings on the Sept. 11 report that had been released. In 2002, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine): expanding Medicare coverage. In 1999, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.): pass spending bills. In 1994 and 1981, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
There was a call to skip recess in 1990 as well, and in 1986. Back in 1979, Rep. John Rhodes (R-Ariz.) suggested that the August recess be canceled to work on energy issues.
Maybe this goes back further, even. I relied on Nexis’s database of news articles and that was the first it dug up. Regardless, you get the point. Calling for the August recess to be scrapped is as timeless as, well, not scrapping the August recess. On only a few of the above occasions (like the Sept. 11 report) was there actually an effort to work through the month. That’s indicated by the graph, too: not a lot of days in session in August in any of those years.
In the abstract if-I-were-in-their-shoes sense, it’s hard to blame them. Were The Washington Post to give me every August off, I would defend it jealously, assuring my bosses that I’d planned to put in a few days of effort while mostly laying around, like any sane American. But in concrete terms, this annual flirtation with actually working 12 months a year does serve to revive a revolutionary thought: Perhaps Congress should work 12 months a year.
Or at least 11, excluding December. Or nine in election years, when the Capitol is basically empty after September so Congress can go out and convince you to let them keep their jobs.
That’s the hashtag: #MakeCongressWorkAFullNineMonthYear. Get it trending.