Why Does Congress Take a Summer Vacation?
Every August, Congress adjourns for a month-long recess...
Every August, Congress adjourns for a month-long recess. While the recess was initially required to deal with Washington, D.C.’s oppressive summer temperatures, it is now more of a scheduled summer vacation, providing an opportunity for lawmakers to return home, spend time with their families, and reconnect with their constituency.
Evolution of the August Recess
From 1789 until the 1930s, Congress convened in December and remained in session for five or six months. After June, Congress adjourned indefinitely. When the Senate moved to its current chamber in 1859, senators were hopeful that the "modern" ventilation system would allow them to work comfortably in the warmer weather. However, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that a truly modern air conditioning system brought relief on the hottest summer days.
Advances in technology and a growing workload gradually resulted in increasingly longer sessions. By the early 1960s, lawmakers often remained in Washington well into the fall. In 1962, the Senate met from January to October with no recess. In 1963, it convened in January and adjourned in December, prompting Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to remark that he no longer recognized his wife during daylight hours. The marathon sessions also prompted Sen. Gale McGee to lobby for an August recess.
While it took time to convince enough of his Senate colleagues to get on board, Sen. Gale was ultimately successful. In 1969, Senate recessed from August 13 to September 3. The break became “official” in 1971 when it was memorialized in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. Under the law, “unless otherwise provided by the Congress, the two Houses shall adjourn sine die not later than July 31 of each year,” or in an odd-numbered year, “by concurrent resolution adopted in each House by roll call vote, for the adjournment of the two Houses 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.”
Congress Not Guaranteed Full August Recess
While the August recess is penciled into Congress’ legislative calendar every year, it doesn't always work out as planned. Both houses of Congress have delayed the recess, or returned mid-recess, in order to pass important legislation. In 1994, the Senate stayed in session into August to debate President Bill Clinton’s proposed health care reforms. In 2005, Congress returned to Washington during the August recess to finalize legislation providing Hurricane Katrina relief.
In 2018, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cancelled much of the scheduled August recess. While Sen. McConnell maintained that the decision was based on the need for Congress to “catch up” on legislative matters, such as vetting President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, the practical result was keeping Democrats off the campaign trail just months before a pivotal November election.
Most recently, Sen. Chuck Schumer, who controls the Senate’s legislative calendar as Senate Majority Leader, warned that the debate over the proposed $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure plan may force lawmakers to cancel their summer vacation plans. While Sen. Schumer’s timetable for finalizing the massive bill may be accurate, it is also likely a negotiation tactic aimed towards getting the bill finished and limiting amendment consideration.
As many members of Congress will acknowledge, they value their summer break and will be anxious to leave Washington sooner rather than later. “Getting home is always a good motivator,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), told Politico. “People are going to get irritated and sick of each other.” How much of their annual summer break will be cancelled remains to be seen.
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If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Teddy Eynon, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-896-4100.
AboutEdward "Teddy" Eynon
Edward “Teddy” Eynon is Managing Partner of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Washington, D.C. office. Teddy regularly represents clients in numerous government-related matters, including public policy, energy and environment, budget, defense, healthcare, financial services, transportation & infrastructure, congressional investigations, and oversight issues.Full Biography
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