As lawmakers hold their final committee hearings and cast their last votes before their August recess, they may not realize that the break is a relatively new phenomenon.
According to tradition, Congress has adjourned most summers since the 2nd Congress in 1791. But it wasn’t until 1970 that Congress made the August recess official, when it passed the Legislative Reorganization Act. It is the only statutory recess on the legislative calendar.
Members “were looking for regularity and wanted to be able to promise their families in January that they could have an August vacation,” Senate Historian Don Ritchie said.
The nonstop legislative periods of the 1960s also played a part in lawmakers’ push for legislative-calendar reform, Deputy House Historian Fred Beuttler said. The Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiatives and other work compelled lawmakers to work through half of the summers of that decade.
The 1970 law creating the August recess writes that Congress shall recess “from that Friday in August which occurs at least thirty days before the first Monday in September.” But there is a caveat: Lawmakers can choose to recess later by passing an extension resolution.
This exception has become an established precedent of sorts, as the Senate has met the deadline only 11 times in the last 40 years, Ritchie said.
Under the Constitution, the Senate and House cannot recess for more than three days without the other chamber’s permission. The chamber that chooses to recess first must either hold pro-forma sessions or receive permission from the other chamber to break earlier, Ritchie said. Because the Senate is adjourning at least a week after the House this year, both chambers will pass an adjournment recess waiving the three-day law, according to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) office.
The purpose of the August recess has changed as lawmakers’ roles evolved.
Until the 20th century, being a lawmaker was not a full-time position: members of Congress conducted legislative business for half a year, and ethics laws did not bar them from working other jobs.
The legislative calendar reflected that reality, enabling lawmakers to return to their fields or businesses for extended periods of time.
Now that Congress operates on a year-round cycle, Beuttler said, summer recess is an opportunity for lawmakers to spend time with their family, work with their constituents, campaign or travel in congressional delegations.
But sometimes urgent business intervenes. Extreme circumstances or presidential pressure have compelled Congress to continue legislative businesses or return for special sessions during its summer break. Indeed, House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) confirmed Wednesday that the House will return for a brief session next week after the Senate approved a $26 billion Medicaid and education funding package Wednesday.
In 1841 lawmakers experienced their first Washington summer due to an abundance of legislation, according to Senate Historical Office staff member Robert Mason.
The death of President William Henry Harrison in April 1841 also influenced lawmakers to stay in session that year, Ritchie said, as tensions between Congress and the new president mounted.
And in the early 20th century, six out of eight of President Woodrow Wilson’s Congresses worked through the blistering summer — before air conditioning was installed.
Wartime also prompted some presidents to call Congress back in session: When the Civil War started, President Abraham Lincoln convened Congress on July 4, 1861. Congress was also in session during some of the summer months in World Wars I and II.
Some historians posit that recessing — particularly establishing deadlines — serves as a positive force for lawmakers.
“Congress is more likely to wrap up major bills in advance of major recesses,” said Sarah Binder, a governance studies senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and political science professor at George Washington University.
It also has partisan and electoral benefits, she said.
“Recess means an opportunity to go home and for members to sell what the majority party has been doing or for the minority party to complain about what the majority party has been doing,” Binder said. “There’s an electoral incentive, and likely a partisan incentive, to get out of town.”