Congress away, but please don't call it 'vacation'
WASHINGTON — When former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis took a vacation, he'd take the whole month of August off.
No work and no apologies.
"I can't do 12 months work in 12 months; I can do it in 11," he would tell his colleagues on the court. He'd head to the family summer place on Cape Cod, canoe a lot, and make ice cream for his children.
The practice, not uncommon among Washington's elite at the time, would find few takers on today's Capitol Hill.
Even the word "vacation" has become taboo. It's "August recess." Or, better still, "district work period." Many lawmakers secretly hope to do some fishing for fish, not votes. But in the lexicon of Washington, "events" have supplanted "rounds of golf." If anyone is breaking out a five iron, he or she is not bragging about it.
And foreign travel as part of a congressional delegation is played down, lest hometown newspapers dub it a "junket."
"We all tend to feel in recent years we all need to work longer and harder," says Philippa Strum, a biographer of Justice Brandeis. "It used to be that congressmen would go off playing golf. Now it's a 24-7 work week."
Indeed, 'congressional recess'," may be a contradiction in terms. Lawmakers are always working, always trying to hang onto one job or get promoted to a new one, analysts say.
Rep. Charlie Norwood (R) of Georgia, is one of about 535 congressional cases in point.
Later in the month, he and his wife may take off a few days to visit with an old Vietnam War buddy. In season, he likes to fish for brill in the Savannah River and hunt for quail.
But after working full-bore in recent months on the patients' bill of rights, an aide says Mr. Norwood has got to "pour the coals on to make sure that all the other interests in the district are taken care of."
For Maxine Waters, a House Democrat from California, August is as event-driven as the rest of the year. Speeches, field hearings on election reform, and working with officials on a community health organization are among the activities keeping her busy. "I have no time away from politics," she says. Still, on her travels she finds time to duck into local antique shops with her husband, on the prowl for collectible dolls or Philco radios.
Across the US, August will find other lawmakers patting pigs at state fairs, banging nails into wallboard for community service, and making the rounds at nursing homes or talk-radio shows.
All this, and it's not even an election year.
With see-saw margins of control in both House and Senate, party strategists sent lawmakers home with tomes of "talking points."
Republicans are to trumpet tax relief and the president's energy plan.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee urged members to organize "press events, protests, ... and activist alerts EVERY WEEK...."
While the work schedules vary, the trend for lawmakers is clear: The job that never ends is cutting deep into time with family and friends - or just time to think about something besides politics.
Originally, an August recess was virtually dictated by the weather -the swamp-born, sweltering humidity that pervades the nation's capital.
During the Great Depression, one stoic congressional committee resolved to carry on through the summer heat, but gave up after a witness fell asleep during his own testimony.
Today, in the era of air conditioning, recess is still ordained by federal law.
If a member of Congress wants a job promotion, recess can be especially busy.
Rep. Greg Ganske (R) of Iowa, a former surgeon, used to spend time over recess going on medical missions to places like Armenia, Peru, and Vietnam. Now, he's running for the Senate, so the missions are replaced by fundraising and campaigning.
For Democratic presidential prospects, it's a month to brush up foreign policy credentials. August has seen Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut in Central America, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware in China, and Sen. John Edwards (D) of North Carolina in Israel and Egypt.
Other hopefuls - Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri. and Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts - have homed in on Iowa and New Hampshire, scenes of the earliest presidential primaries.
If there is time for family and friends, it's around the edges of the events.
Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota hopes to lead a family visit to the battlefields of Normandy, where his father had participated in the seaborne allied invasion in 1944. Senator Edwards has cordoned off the last week of the month "to play with his children," aides say.
For Senator Daschle, the signature political event of each year's recess is his almost solitary drives around the state - no planned route, no script, no entourage, with a maximum of one journalist along for the ride.
Last week, he ran into a farmer who raises elk, joined a pickup girls' basketball game, and talked to a sheriff who had just made a big drug bust. Then he returned to Washington to give a major foreign policy address.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois would like to be fishing in Alaska. That will only happen if he can squeeze it in alongside 42 fundraising events aimed at defending his party's six-seat margin of control in the House.
Freshman Rep. Thomas Osborne (R) of Nebraska also hopes to wield a fly rod before month's end, angling for some time on a few quiet streams in the Black Hills. But he is spending most of August driving across the 64,000 square miles in his district, explaining to anxious constituents why the farm check from Washington won't be as big this year.
"There is no way you can coerce a fish to cooperate. I enjoy that. It's a little like trying to get legislation passed, because you're at the mercy of something else," Mr. Osborne says.