With the Senate and House getting ready for an August recess, with little progress on important legislation, some critics say politicians should stay in D.C. And that begs a bigger question: How much vacation do politicians get anyway?
In reality, congressional supporters say the job entails long hours at unexpected times, with lots of energy devoted to fundraising and talking to constituents back home.
And much of the key work behind getting laws passed is done in the recess time period as congressional members gauge support for bills.
The Constitution doesn’t really spell out how much time Congress needs to spend in Washington, in session, doing congressional things.
Article I, Section 4, in the Constitution said that Congress had to meet at least once a year, with the meeting on the first Monday in December. (That was a date that synced up with state legislatures and it was a better fit for politicians who needed to be at home for the harvest season.)
The 20th Amendment moved the date to January 3, or another day that Congress chose.
Today, with the availability of high-speed travel, House members and Senate shuttle between Washington and their homes, spending as little as three days a week at the Capitol when they’re required to be there.
Bradford Fitch, the CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, said in a recent blog post about Congress’ July and August recesses that the time off isn’t realty that.
“The media constantly mocks congressional ‘recesses’ as if our elected officials are collectively streaming out of Washington every month to the proverbial schoolyard to play kickball. As members and staff know, the reality is much different,” he said.
Fitch’s group is dedicated to reinforcing public trust in Congress and its research shows that Congress members dedicate 70 hours per week to work while they are in Washington and another 59 hours per week when they are back home.
Its study shows that House members spend 50 percent of their time in their congressional districts talking with constituents or campaigning. Their downtime – spending time with family and friends—takes up 17 percent of their time.
But it’s another fact shows why some critics aren’t happy with a “commuter Congress” – the study showed that 78 percent of members spent more than 40 weekends each year in their district.
That’s because Congress meets in Washington for about 140 days each year. The House has met on Capitol Hill for an average of 140.28 days annually since 1977. In some years, the number of legislative days can dip to 101 days a year (as in 2006) or it can be more than 170 days (as in 2011).
Those numbers don’t equate to the typical schedule of an American worker, who usually is at their workplace for 250 days a year (not counting vacation days), with 105 weekend days and a varying number of public holidays. (Congress has designated 10 federal holidays for federal workers.)
So to answer our original question, if a member of Congress took off weekends and federal holidays, that Congress member would have 110 recess days or “state work periods” in a typical year where Congress wasn’t in session and attendance wasn’t required in Washington. Here’s the math:
Days in non-leap year: 365
Days spent in D.C.: 140
Weekend days: 105
Federal holidays: 10
Recess/travel/state work days: 110
The average American worker gets 16 days of combined vacation and holiday time per year.
Therefore, every August, there are more than a few news articles and opinion pieces debating the wisdom of the month-long August congressional recess.
This year, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein takes up the cause of those folks who believe that House members and Senators really have two jobs: one in Washington and one in their home areas.
“There are, in other words, plenty of reasons to hate Congress. But the fact that they carve out a lot of time to go back home and meet with the people they’re supposed to be representing isn’t one of them. The problem with Congress isn’t what they do on recess, it’s what they don’t do when they’re in session,” he says.
Klein’s opinion is a little outside of the media mainstream.
“Meanwhile, immigration reform, a fix for the farm bill, and the 2014 budget all remain untouched. Once again, Congress is packing it in having left all the big work undone,” says Businessweek’s Kristen Hinman.
“Just days before Congress is to leave Washington (and not return until after Labor Day!), there’s almost no real activity,” says a team of NBC News reporters, led by Chuck Todd. “Indeed, as it faces a record-high disapproval rating in the NBC/WSJ poll, Congress is doing two things right now: 1) packing its bags for its month-long break, and 2) laying the groundwork for the fall fights on all of these issues.”
Congress is back on September 9 in what could be a crazy month, even by its standards, as the government’s fiscal year ends by October 1.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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