Question: My question is about the August recess Congress has every year. How long has that been going on, and why? And do Members always hold town meetings in August? Sacramento, CA
Answer: Congress has an annual August recess because of tradition and because of law. The tradition stems from the fact that air conditioning didn’t reach the U.S. Capitol until 1929. In short, Members of Congress suffered from the very heat and humidity for which Washington, D.C. is so famous. Heat and humidity had a negative impact on productivity, on Members’ disposition, and on their health. An average of 3 Senators died every Congress – and some physicians blamed the poor air quality of their chamber, both in the winter and summer.
The first air conditioning system was installed in 1929 – and it was rudimentary! It provided little benefit on truly hot days except for at least circulating the air in an otherwise stagnant chamber. However, by that time, the tradition of taking an August recess for the sake of one’s health and general sanity had taken hold. It would be almost three decades, when the Capitol was renovated in the late 1950s, before the air-conditioning system was improved sufficiently to stand up to the oppressive heat of August.
However, history doesn’t actually support the theory that Members died due to the poor air quality of the chamber. The greatest number of deaths occurred in the 72nd Congress (1931-1932) when 26 Members died. In testifying before a congressional committee in 1945, a former House physician stated: “When I first came to the Capitol, it was not uncommon to pick up a Member of Congress who had died in his office at the rate of about one a month.” The physician, Dr. Calver, attributed most of the deaths to heart attacks, brought on by stress.
The law underpinning the August recess lies in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, which requires Congress to go out of session no later than July 31 of each year unless there is a declared war. Of course, Congress has the authority to permanently change the terms of this law – or to adopt a temporary resolution to change the recess date for that year only – and they frequently do so, often recessing for a summer break after the statutory July 31 date.
Since the August recess became official in 1970, the Senate has been called back into session only twice: once in 2005 to respond to Hurricane Katrina with emergency legislation and in 2010 to respond to what the Democratic leadership termed an emergency – passage of the Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act, which gives the states $26 billion to pay for Medicaid and teachers’ salaries.
The Legislative Reorganization Act was drafted to modernize many aspects of legislative operations, and among the many changes it brought, was a minor provision that reflected the concern at the time that sessions of Congress were lasting too long. Members felt unable to take sufficient time to spend with their constituents back in their home districts and states. So a summer break to travel home was mandated. (Remember that in earlier decades, traveling back and forth from Washington, D.C., especially to rural districts, was more difficult and far more time consuming than it is today.)
The annual August recess is officially called a “district work period.” Most Members [although not all] use the time to hold town halls/public meetings, and make themselves more available to their constituents back home in other ways. Many organized groups target the August recess as an especially good time of the year to get face time with their Members of Congress because they are in their home offices for a longer sustained period, and are less distracted.
Members may also spend some of the August break time to be with their often neglected families [very few Members bring their families to live in Washington due to the expense.] Others take official trips joining delegations that travel around the world to examine first-hand some of the areas they have been debating. Although there is the widespread stereotype that these are thinly-disguised vacations, e.g. visiting an air show in Paris, Members also visit the battlefields of Afghanistan and Kosovo, and other similarly dangerous or meaningful places.