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Street Talk: The Dream of Recess Deferred

You shouldn’t be reading this — at least not in your office.

The day after the Fourth of July should be the start of one of the sacrosanct recess weeks. It’s so ingrained in the internal clocks of lobbyists, staffers and journalists you wouldn’t even need to consult a calendar.

Except this year.

The Senate, which canceled its July Fourth recess originally scheduled for this week, can’t really take the blame. The House had long planned to be in session, taking a district break last week and ensuring the K Street lobbying and fundraising machine would not unwind for the holiday. The same thing happened over the Memorial Day week.

These unsynchronized recesses might be a metaphor for the lack of comity between the two bodies or may speak to some deep meaning of how the 112th Congress is or isn’t working. But the real matter at hand is that this scheduling predicament has made life confusing, chaotic or just downright insane for lobbyists and other Washingtonians who set their clocks by the Congressional calendar.

“It’s making me crazy,” griped Kathryn Lehman, a top Republican lobbyist at Holland & Knight, who spent nearly two decades as a Capitol Hill aide. “I started on the Hill in 1989, and honestly, I’ve never gone more than eight weeks without some kind of recess. Mentally, this is hard to keep track of.”

Lehman isn’t asking for a vacation. She just wants a week to corral all her taxicab receipts, conduct some internal meetings, think big thoughts about her clients’ legislative strategies and slice her email inbox from 20,000 unread messages to 5,000.

“That’s the beauty of recess,” she said. “There’s nobody in town, so you can focus. When we’re in session, especially at the end of a fundraising deadline, you’re talking breakfasts, lunches, dinners and clients in town. It’s not like these are normal jobs where you’re working eight-hour days.”

Anne Urban, a longtime Senate staffer who is now a partner at the lobbying firm Urban Swirski & Associates, was already planning to be in the office this week. But she pities her former colleagues in the Senate who had to cancel long-planned vacations so their bosses could work on an agreement to the debt ceiling crisis to keep the U.S. government afloat after Aug. 2.

As for the out-of-whack recess calendar, Urban called it disconcerting.

“For people who have been around this town for decades, the Congressional schedule is kind of fixed in your mind,” she said. “Now, this year, I have to keep the schedule in my top drawer so I can refer to it.”

Some lobbyists like the new schedule House Republicans put in place this year. But even they bemoan the silliness of the two chambers planning major recesses, such as July Fourth, for different weeks.

Lobbyist Michael Herson, who runs American Defense International, said he loves the new House calendar in general because the Members’ more frequent district work periods afford him more weeks when he’s free of early-morning or late-evening fundraisers.

“It’s family-friendly not only for the Members but for the lobbyists, too,” he said. “I know every month I have at least a week or two I don’t have to be at a breakfast, and I can be home with my kids.”

But he said the mismatched recess calendars between the two chambers has taken its toll.

“The schedule has made us focus more on the House,” he said.

Another lobbyist, a Republican who works both chambers, added: “Philosophically, I do support the fact that they’re trying to get home more, but there could have been periods of time where you had these certain traditional recesses that would have made sense to coordinate with the Senate.”

For some, the upside may be that the Senate is sticking around but not doing much.

Dave Hoppe, who spent years working in the Senate, said his colleagues at Quinn Gillespie and Associates who had scheduled time off this week still planned to take it. Although the Senate is not in recess, he said, it isn’t likely to work on major bills that K Street cares about such as tax reform.

But he wasn’t going anywhere.

“We had a number of client things we were planning to do next week because the House was already going to be in,” Hoppe explained.

“When they’re juxtaposed like this, it makes everything a little more difficult,” he said. “If they’re all together, you can target your time, vacations, have meetings.”

And of course, there is always August recess, the holiest of them all, unchangeable and just a mere five weeks away. We won’t have to worry about those pesky debt ceiling talks getting in the way. Right? Nothing could interfere with August.

Except sometimes something does.

Hoppe recalled August 1994. He was an aide to then-Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) when then-Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) — gasp — cancelled the summer break to consider a major health care bill that ultimately didn’t pass.

If lawmakers and the administration can’t resolve their impasse over the nation’s debt, Hoppe isn’t ruling out the possibility of August recess getting canned.

“If we get into that situation, my guess is Congress doesn’t go home,” he said. “Having been there before, that’s not a happy-go-lucky crowd.”

Indeed not.

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