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Patricia A. O'Malley
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Why Does Congress Take a Five Week “Vacation”?
Why Doesn’t the Media Explain This Stuff?
August 4, 2017
Congressional approval ratings have reached a new all-time low of just ten percent. That means that only 1 of every 10 Americans thinks Congress is doing a good job. Much of this dissatisfaction is surely deserved, but far too many people have the wrong idea about what members of Congress are supposed to do for a living.
Congress will recess soon and will return to work sometime after Labor Day, leading millions of Americans to gripe, yet again, about the easy life of our Congressional representatives. Sorry folks, this one isn’t true either.
Just to clear up any confusion, Congress consists of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Sadly, there are people out there who still think that Senators are not members of Congress and that there is something called “Congress and the Senate”. Nope. HOUSE + SENATE = CONGRESS.
Congress in Washington
Our Constitution requires Congress to “assemble at least once in every year”, beginning in early January. But being a member of Congress is a 24/7/365 day job. Of course, they do take vacations now and then. Most of the time, they even keep their clothes on in public. Yet they are never completely disconnected from their offices and their staffs. And the president can call them back into session at any time, in case of emergency.
Members of Congress work more hours in every week than most Americans ever thought of working. Whether you like them or not, whether you agree with their principles or not, they do show up for work. Yet politically ignorant Americans think that the members aren’t working if they’re not on the House and Senate floors every minute. That is not the way Congress works.
Being a professional football player is a full-time job. Yet the players spend only a small fraction of their work time on the playing field – about four hours a week. Other than that, they watch game films; have practices, team meetings, medical treatments, public appearances, and more. All of that comprises their work week. Movie actors appear in a film for about two hours. In order to create those two hours, they have to read and approve scripts, negotiate contracts, train and research for their roles, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, and then make public appearances to promote their movies. Even when they’re not on the game-day playing field or the screen, they’re still working.
It’s the same thing for Congress. When in session but not on the legislative floors, members attend committee meetings and hearings, read and develop legislation (yes, really), give media interviews, and read reams of letters, reports and briefings. They meet with constituents, lobbyists, department heads, each other, and their staffs. Sometimes, they even meet with the president. Their phones never stop ringing. And they are assaulted all day, every day, every place they go, by people who only want “one minute” of their time.
There is no such thing as a “typical” Congressional work week. The House Speaker (Paul Ryan, R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader (Mitch McConnell, R-KY) set the schedules. Generally, they try to recess for weekends, but that doesn’t always happen. Floor sessions can begin anywhere from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM, and can last from 10 minutes to 14 hours. Sometimes, they don’t schedule any floor activity at all for a few days or a week, to allow time for committee activity.
You've seen those news reports where a small group of House or Senate members question some general, cabinet secretary, or whomever. Those are committee sessions.
Congress “on vacation”
When they do break, it’s usually around a federal holiday, and can last from a few days to a week or more. But even then, they’re still working. While on “break”, they meet with constituents in their home districts – in their offices and in town hall meetings. They have staff meetings, phone meetings, and all of the same things they do in Washington. In even-numbered years, like this one, every House member and one-third of the Senators face re-election campaigns. That adds even more to their schedules, with campaign and fundraising events.
Usually, Congress recesses for most of August, until after Labor Day. That tradition began when the nation’s capital moved from Philadelphia to Washington, DC in 1800. The city sits on a sweltering, muggy, mosquito-ridden swamp. And if you’ve ever been to Washington in August, you know what I mean. Now try it without electricity. So Congress recessed to get away from the heat. Now, they use the time to take care of business at home.
Don’t worry, Congress will be back. Then we can all be angry at them again.
Given all of this, it’s a wonder that any of their marriages survive.
For More Information
U.S. House of Representatives
Read the Constitution
See all Congressional Activity
Get Your Message to Your Legislators
Tales Exaggerate Congressional Pay and Pensions
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