If you thought Congress was already polarized, wait and see what happens when dozens of senators are stuck in Washington together for most of swampy August.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, canceled the usual monthlong recess this year for his chamber, a tradition that spans decades and was born out of lawmakers’ efforts to ensure they’d have a set time they could travel home every legislative calendar.
Instead – after a group of more junior senators, as well as tweets from President Donald Trump, made the push to keep working – McConnell announced he will keep members in town most of the month to pass spending bills and confirm Trump administration nominees, a move that has attracted quiet grumbling and consternation from Senate aides and members.
“You know, I am ready to work when I’m needed, but if you look at the time we have wasted for the last six or eight months, this is really hard to explain,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who’s the Senate’s minority whip. “And for most of us, August is a time to be with kids and grandkids, and it kind of upsets me that we’re losing this opportunity to be with our families.”
With the Senate in session, members up for re-election will have less time to campaign and senators stuck within the Beltway will have to answer for any of Trump’s latest tweets.
Some lament the issue isn’t missed time off, but missed time with constituents.
“It’s amazing the discussions you get into at Walmart or Menards,” South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds said. “I think most (constituents) understand that there is a group of us that have every intention of actually getting our work done, and if that means that we have to give up part of our time, in which we’d actually be back in the state, they understand that, but they still want to see us face-to-face.”
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, told CNN she’s had to cut some beloved fairs and festivals from her calendar, time when she would have had a chance to meet with voters back home.
“One of the aspects of canceling the August recess that most disturbs me is it plays into this myth that when we are at home, we aren’t working, and anyone who looked at my schedule from last weekend would know that I am working,” Collins said.
Plus, Collins argues, choosing between Maine in August and DC in August is no contest.
There is “Maine in August, with lovely fairs and festivals, fun, vs. swampy, humid DC, where my air conditioner keeps breaking,” she said.
A tradition decades in the making
August recess started decades ago, when the congressional schedule began slowly to bleed into the summer months and lawmakers began to notice there was general unease at working straight through the calendar year. According to the Senate Historical Office’s records, into the 1930s Congress typically began a session in December and departed Washington five or six months later, with only a few exceptions. By the 1950s and 1960s, however, the sessions were spanning well into and beyond the summer months.
The Senate Historical Office credits Maine’s Sen. Margaret Chase Smith with beginning the campaign for summer recess in 1959. She said the long work sessions, according to the Senate’s own website, had led to “confused thinking, harmful emotions, destructive tempers, unsound and unwise legislation, and ill health with the very specter of death hanging over Members of Congress.”
The work kept coming, however, and according to the Senate’s website, the session in 1963 went from January to December “with no break longer than a three-day weekend.”
Finally, the Senate’s office credits Wyoming’s Sen. Gale McGee with winning the battle for August recess in 1969, when Congress left town mid-August and didn’t come back until the first week in September. In 1971, Congress finally included its break in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970.
The push to stay
Today, more and more lawmakers say they’re happy to stay and work. Like other fights over the Senate’s schedule, a more junior group of lawmakers are the ones who lobbied for change to the calendar.
“I think that issue is a little bit generational, to be honest,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska who was among those fighting to stay in session in August. “By the way, we can work weekends. Most Alaskans work weekends. Why don’t we work weekends?”
Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina and former speaker of the state House, said, “Frankly, I like it when we come back. It’s very consistent with the way I ran our chamber in the statehouse. I expect us to get work done.”
There’s still a chance that senators could salvage a few weeks, but that’s up to McConnell. Across the Capitol, senators longingly look toward the House, whose members are gone for the month campaigning, meeting with constituents and traveling with their families.
“Every once in a while I ask myself, ‘Did I make the wrong choice, because of August recess?’ ” said Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a former House member from Maryland.
“The House is gone for how long?” he asks.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Van Hollen said jokingly. “I think I miscalculated.”