The August recess: It’s a time of year that most Representatives and Senators look forward to since they return to their districts and states for an extended period with their families and constituents. Owing to Washington’s sweltering heat, Congress has historically tried to leave town during the summer. For many years, Congress did not meet for the entire year, so they often adjourned sine die—as in, it was done for the session—before it got too hot. After the invention of air conditioning, when the sessions of Congress became yearlong affairs, they generally tried to have a lengthy break in August. For much of the nation’s history, this recess was a matter of custom, but congressional reform efforts in the 20th century made it a matter of law—though one which may be easily set aside when politics demands.
In 1945, Congress created the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, which was to study and recommend ways the Legislative Branch could carry out its constitutional responsibilities more effectively. The Joint Committee recommended that Congress adjourn annually by June 30 and reconvene later in the fall. However, when Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, it delayed the adjournment date by a month and omitted the scheduled fall session. The Act provided that each Chamber would “adjourn sine die not later than the last day (Sundays excepted) in the month of July,” unless the country were at war, or the President declared a state of emergency, or Congress provided otherwise. The committee report accompanying the legislation noted, “Such a regular adjournment at definite annual intervals will insure the return of Members to their constituents for that refreshment of contact and exchange of opinion and experience so essential to responsive representative government” (See Congressional Record, July 25, 1946, page 10048). Though the adjournment provision was billed to increase the connection between Members and their constituents, one House Member noted that it was incongruous for Congress to increase Member pay by 50 percent while it also adopted the provision that set a default sine die adjournment at the end of July.
Though the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 provided for an end-of-July sine die adjournment, Congress often found itself in DC well after that. Congress’s last July sine die adjournment occurred on July 27, 1956. Even apart from that sine die adjournment, in 1969, the Washington Post noted that except for election years, Congress hadn’t had a lengthy summer break since the mid-1950s. Keeping Congress in session throughout the summer frustrated Members. “Younger members of Congress who have small children—and wives of these members—have been conducting a drive for years for recesses which would permit summer vacations with their families,” one May 1963 Washington Post article noted.
Two decades after the first Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, Congress created another, which met in 1965 and 1966. This Joint Committee resulted in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, which amended the previous Legislative Reorganization Act. The 1970 Act provided that Congress adjourn sine die no later than July 31, or that in odd-numbered years (i.e., the first year of a Congress), the two Chambers agree to a concurrent resolution adjourning Congress for at least 30 days prior to Labor Day. (The first year of a Congress is always an odd-numbered year. General elections are never held in odd-numbered years, so it is not hard to see why the Legislative Reorganization Act would anticipate Congress returning to DC during the fall of these years but not necessarily even-numbered years.) As with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, the 1970 legislation provided that the adjournment provisions would not apply when the country was at war, the President declared a state of emergency, or Congress provided otherwise.
So the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 enshrined the August recess into law and Congress got the legally mandated break and all was smooth sailing, right?
No, not quite. For one, though many Member families do go on vacation during August, Members also spend a lot of time with their constituents at a plethora of events. Both individual citizens and public interest groups recognize August recess events as valuable opportunities to speak with Members. For instance, the American Farm Bureau Federation published a blog post the title of which says it all: “August Recess, Prime Time for Grassroots in Action.” Among the most significant of the August, recess events are the time-honored townhall meetings, public forums where they discuss important policy issues. Townhall meetings, whether in August or other times of the year, can be incredibly contentious, especially in years when Congress is considering majorly controversial legislation. For instance, in August 2009, they got rowdy in response to the Democrats’ efforts to pass Obamacare. In August 2017, healthcare policy sparked similar protests, but this time they were aimed at Republicans, who then controlled both Chambers and the White House and were attempting to repeal and replace Obamacare. “In this small southeast Wisconsin town [of Racine] on Lake Michigan, the Speaker [Paul Ryan] received the same kind of treatment as other congressional Republican [sic] facing unhappy crowds at town halls,” one article read. Facing angry constituents? That does not sound much like a vacation. It’s not for nothing that the House calls the recess a “district work period” and the Senate calls it a “state work period.”
In addition to meeting with constituents in August, Members may actually find the recess cut short due to business in DC. For instance, on August 6 this year—a Saturday!—the Senate met to consider reconciliation legislation that was a major priority for the Democrats. They also confirmed a couple of nominees for Executive Branch posts. Not to be outdone, the Speaker called the House in for a session on August 12, a Friday, to pass the reconciliation bill the Senate passed on August 6. (Though, for many House Members, that will not require them to come back to Washington since the Chamber allows for proxy voting during the coronavirus pandemic. The House Clerk lists over 160 letters from Members—over a third of the House—designating a colleague to cast their vote via proxy.) Nor is this the first time that leadership has kept Congress in DC during times Members would be traditionally back in their states and districts. In 2018, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell canceled much of the August recess for the Upper Chamber so they could confirm nominees for Executive and Judicial Branch positions. Several GOP colleagues reportedly urged McConnell to do this, but one publication noted, “Privately, some Republicans are worried that canceling the August recess will become a regular occurrence.” In the end, the Senate met only on eight days in five weeks.
Despite the handful of days that Congress has been in session in August in the last few years, Members and their families do not need to worry too much about it disappearing entirely. The opportunity to spend an extended time with family and constituents makes it particularly appealing for Members. So it will only be canceled or cut short for an especially compelling political reason. The August recess is a congressional reform that will last for the foreseeable future.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is the research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.