August recess is not an option

Congress – and the rest of Washington – clears out this month. Why? It’s the law.

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    Traffic moves down Pennsylvania Ave., with the US Capitol building in the background on Aug. 12. The congressional recess is not just tradition; it’s the law. Under a 1970 act, the House and Senate are to adjourn for 30 days in August, unless they vote otherwise.
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August in Washington is hot. How hot is it? So hot that K Street’s asphalt melts. So hot that even the most popular restaurants have empty sidewalk tables at lunch.

Thus many residents do the logical thing: They flee. Generally, D.C.’s lawyers, lobbyists, and reporters wait until Congress begins its August break. Then the city empties out faster than a schoolyard after a term’s last bell.

But here’s the thing: That congressional recess, which makes possible Washington’s mass vacation, is not just tradition; it’s the law. Under a 1970 act, the House and Senate are to adjourn for 30 days in August, unless they vote otherwise.

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It’s not just an aversion to 100 percent humidity that sends lawmakers packing. It’s also a humane desire to give congressional families (and staffers) a predictable annual schedule.

“Essentially, they are supposed to take that recess,” says Donald Ritchie, associate historian in the Senate Historical Office.

During much of America’s history this wasn’t an issue. Through the 19th century until the early days of the 20th, Congress was usually in session less than half the year. Legislative work was finished by spring, at which time lawmakers adjourned until December.

Then came the New Deal and World War II. National lawmaking became a full-time job. Senators and representatives found themselves split as to where their families should live – in Washington or in their home states?

The advent of jet airliners in the late 1950s unbalanced this equation, says Mr. Ritchie. Even lawmakers from California could go home on weekends.

That’s when a split developed between older members, who hewed to the tradition of working until the year’s legislation was done, and younger ones, who felt the work was never done and wanted to be able to tell spouses and kids when they could go to the beach.

The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 settled things. Now, many staff members take that time off as well, leaving Capitol Hill so empty it resembles a museum. So Ritchie, as a Senate employee, will be relaxing, too, right?

“No,” he says. “I like to be here when everyone else is gone. You can really get some work done.”

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