The massively unpopular lawmakers who toil in Congress might be forgiven for being extra motivated to escape Washington, D.C., this summer. After all, GOP efforts to promote a legislative agenda have stalled, and voter ire is rising. Republicans' total lack of success has begun to generate questions about leadership, and Democrats are licking their chops for a way to break the GOP's monopoly on influence, and to peel away President Trump enough to get some of their own agenda grafted onto his. Why would congressional Republicans want to stick around for that?
Well, a handful of Republicans in both the House and the Senate do want to stick around. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), for one, called Sunday for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to cancel the scheduled 5.5-week August recess, which actually manages to kiss three separate months, stretching from the end of July to the beginning of September. (It is worth noting that Sasse made this plea from Fremont, Nebraska — where he's staying during the Independence Day recess.)
Sasse's rationale for wanting to declare the August recess over before it begins is clear: The push to replace ObamaCare has sputtered, and canceling the August recess would give the Senate time to figure it out. "Let's do this full-time, 18 hours a day, six days a week. Let's cancel the August state work period, and let's do it in full public view and have hearings," Sasse told CNN's Jake Tapper on State of the Union.
Nine of Sasse's Republican colleagues agree. In a letter to McConnell, the group pointed out that closing down in August only leaves 33 legislative days before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. That offers an inadequate amount of time to successfully conclude the health-care reform negotiations as well as the tax-reform proposals pushed by the White House. Both need to be passed before the budget for fiscal year 2018, unless Congress decides to kick that can down the road a little longer with a continuing resolution that more or less leaves the spending priorities of the Obama administration in place for several weeks.
Many conservatives in the House want to keep working in August as well. The Freedom Caucus called on House Speaker Paul Ryan two weeks ago to forgo the recess to accelerate progress on the Republican agenda. Given the frustrations of leadership with the Freedom Caucus over the last few months, it might not do much for Ryan's intent regarding August, but it joins a growing chorus of concern over the quagmire in which the GOP finds its agenda and the rapidly declining amount of time to get it unstuck.
Why go on recess at all? The August recess does not have a long tradition for Congress, but it is ensconced in law. In 1970, Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act, and in Section 132 it mandates an adjournment "no later than July 31 of each year," and that it shall last "at least 30 days," with the only explicit exception being an ongoing declaration of war by Congress. The intent was to provide a stable length to the legislative sessions and to allow members to spend some time back home.
Can Ryan and McConnell get around it? Section 132 does allow for congressional action to override it, but the language suggests that it would have to pass by a floor vote in each chamber. So far it does not seem likely to get majorities in either chamber, and Democrats arguably could block it through a filibuster if they wanted to stymie the GOP agenda.
A better question would be why Congress continues to have the recess at all. Few members of either chamber fully move to Washington any longer, and travel home regularly over the long weekends of the congressional schedule. In election years, House and Senate incumbents need to campaign at home, but even then incumbents have such overwhelming advantages over challengers that the carve-out is difficult to justify. In off years, there are few such pressures. Members of Congress have become increasingly reluctant to hold town-hall meetings with constituents, precisely because of blowback from both parties' efforts to reform health care, so increasingly there is no constituent-oriented reason for the break.
There seems to be little reason for the August recess except as an escape, and the timing of it is particularly questionable. Every year, Congress has to pass a budget, an enormously complicated set of negotiations between 535 elected officials on Capitol Hill and the president at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Does it make sense to have a five-week gap in that process within a month of the deadline?
The argument for a postponement just this year to resolve the health-care reform debate seems somewhat weaker. Republicans had seven years to put together a plan to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Counting from Trump's surprise win in November, the two GOP caucuses have had eight months to work out the kinks. At this point, a deadline might serve better than an extension.
Still, the demand to cancel the August recess should get serious debate in both chambers in the next few weeks. In these populist times, voters want Congress to put their priorities ahead of members' need for relaxation or campaigning, and most of them don't get five weeks of vacation all year, let alone all at once. Congress should work at least as hard as the constituents that send them to Washington. If they want time off, let them earn it by getting their jobs done more efficiently and effectively.