It is no secret that Washington in general, and Capitol Hill in particular, is populated with a lot of conversationalists who enjoy nothing more than beginning a sentence with, “Well, actually …”
This story is for you.
The common assumption that Congress skips out of town for the shank end of summer because of the heat is wrong. For the past half-century, August recess has served as both a welcome deadline and a needed respite from legislative work for lawmakers, staffers and others who live and breathe by the congressional calendar. But the timing of the break has more to do with historical happenstance than heat and humidity.
As Congress sprints around to finish work — or at least postpone it — before the August break, it does so in 90-degree weather. That’s par for the course: July is D.C.’s hottest month on average.
And there are few cooler places to beat the summertime heat than the halls of Congress, where the incessantly blasted air conditioning can make dressing in anything less than a full suit uncomfortably chilly. That’s been the case since at least 1928, when the Carrier Corporation installed its “manufactured weather” system in the Capitol, decades before air conditioning became a common amenity.
Back then, it was still rare for Congress to stick around Washington into August, but that was more a product of the Constitution than the weather, said Daniel S. Holt, an assistant historian at the Senate Historical Office. “Prior to the adoption of the 20th Amendment in 1933, the congressional calendar was very different than what we see today,” he said. “You’d start in December and then hope to adjourn by the beginning of the summer or sometimes, maybe, the middle of the summer.”
Being a congressman was still more of a part-time gig, and the federal fiscal year ended on June 30. (A truly heat-adverse legislative body would never have chosen to miss out on the mid-Atlantic’s lovely falls and mild winters.)
The idea that Congress needed to beat the heat stems in part from Vice President John Nance Garner, who famously said, “No good legislation ever comes out of Washington after June.” Another oft-cited quote comes from Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith. She started calling for taking off both August and September because the Senate’s increased workload created “confused thinking, harmful emotions, destructive tempers, unsound and unwise legislation, and ill health with the very specter of death hanging over Members of Congress.”
But those quotes are more about the respective dangers of rushed legislation and burnout than warm weather. Smith might have been a Mainer, but Garner called Uvalde, Texas, home — leaving Washington meant no reprieve from the heat for ol’ “Cactus Jack.”
Home for the holiday
The man who really got the summer recess beach ball rolling was Sen. Gale McGee of Wyoming. McGee was part of a wave of new, young senators — he was 46 in 1961, the year the Senate first held hearings on instituting the annual break — who were trying to balance the trend toward nonstop politics with some semblance of a family life.
Most members in those years moved their entire families to Washington while Congress was in session. If Congress adjourned on schedule back then, members could go home around the same time their kids’ summer vacations began.
But that rarely happened. Instead, as school let out for summer, the families would head back home while the members stayed in Washington to work until the late summer or early fall. And right as the kids were heading back to school in D.C., members would be scattering to their districts to meet with constituents and campaign. “There was this complaint on the part of congressional wives that members of Congress are separated from their families almost half the year,” said Holt, who is currently working on an updated history of August recess.
In a fit of bipartisanship, the Democratic Congressional Wives Forum and the Republican Congressional Wives Club joined forces and got 173 better halves to sign a petition for a standardized summer holiday, Holt said. Bethine Church, Sen. Frank Church’s wife, testified before the Senate Rules Committee.
Still, there was opposition to the idea from some of the older, more senior members of Congress, meaning there was little hope of getting leadership to voluntarily schedule vacation. “[Speaker] Sam Rayburn, a 79-year-old bachelor without any children, famously says that ‘a summer recess is the greatest nonsense I ever heard,’” Holt said.
So the politicians who preferred spending August lying on beaches instead of lying around Beltway reporters passed a law, the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, requiring a recess in August. And despite the occasional threat from the Senate majority leader or House speaker to act like a schoolteacher disappointed with their unruly charges and cancel or curtail recess, Capitol Hill has emptied out every August since.
Recess is canceled, class!
That all said, even though everyone talks about the “August recess,” Congress hasn’t technically formally recessed for August since 2016.
The Constitution’s Adjournments Clause forbids either chamber from adjourning for more than three days without the other’s consent. That led to the practice of scheduling recesses with concurrent resolutions. But while the Senate is away, the president can play — i.e., make appointments without the Senate’s advice and consent to “fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the end of their next Session.”
During George W. Bush’s presidency, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hit upon a way of preventing him from making recess appointments without losing recess: pro forma sessions. Instead of adjourning for the entire month, Democrats repeatedly adjourned for three days, sending a lone senator to gavel in and then out without conducting any real business before adjourning for another three days.
This pro forma polka continued throughout the Obama administration, which challenged it before the Supreme Court in 2014 and lost in a unanimous decision.
Starting in 2017, when members of both parties were reportedly concerned about President Donald Trump firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replacing him with a lackey who would kill an ongoing investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, Congress dropped the entire business of formally declaring an August recess. “It’s actually easier, instead of going through the legislative process of a concurrent resolution per the 1970 Act, [to] just reach agreement for a break using these pro formas,” Holt said.
This means the periodic bills to force members to stick around the Capitol in the summer if they’re behind schedule on appropriations work, usually by forbidding one chamber or the other from considering a concurrent resolution for recessing in August, are as pointless as they are unpopular with their peers. Virginia Republican Rob Wittman, for example, has been introducing versions of his Stay on Schedule (S.O.S.) Resolution since 2015; this year’s version has zero co-sponsors.