–by Joanna Hallac
If you live and work in the DC-metro area, there is a certain relief that comes with the month of August. I’m in no way referring to relief from the suffocating heat and humidity that August annually brings to the District, but relief from the usual madness associated with all things congressional, which arrives in the form of August recess. Yes, friends, it is a truly lovely time of year here in the nation’s capital—there are even fewer tourists to contend with by the time mid- to late- August rolls around, as the nation’s students and families go home to prepare for the upcoming school year. Here at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, however, we can’t simply just revel in the wonder of an emptier, quieter capital and Capitol; we have to examine the history behind August recess because that is why you read our blog. So here you have it, the history behind that most wonderful of times in DC: August recess.
Although it has been a tradition since the summer of 1791, August recess actually became a statutory requirement since the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, making it the only statutory recess on the House and Senate calendars. The tradition first began mainly due to the oppressive heat and humidity that August would bring, not only to DC, which is where Congress has met since 1800, but also in both Philadelphia and New York City, where Congress met prior to moving into their permanent home here. Since their move to the Capitol in 1800, things didn’t improve much as neither chamber was built in a manner that allowed for air to move around enough to provide any relief from the hot summer weather (not to mention the smells that would take over due to the trash and sewage out in the streets of the capital). Once the new chambers were built in the 1850s during the Capitol extension, there was hope amongst members of the House and Senate that the “modern ventilation systems” that were supposedly a part of both new chambers would bring some measure of relief, but it was soon very clear that they were ineffective. Even once the 1920s rolled around and more modern means of climate control were introduced to both chambers of Congress, then members still felt that nothing was enough to help them cope with the dog days of DC summer. So, when the opportunity presented itself in 1970, they made what had become an annual tradition into a legal one, hence August recess.
Weather, it seems, is not the sole determining factor behind August recess. Originally, members of Congress had other professions that they practiced when they were not in session, so having time to go home and practice their primary professions was necessary. As time wore on and the institution of Congress grew, so did the responsibilities of members, which necessitated more time in session; however, as mentioned above, the hot summer weather made long sessions that wore on into August undesirable and caused the chambers to adjourn. In the 1960s, new members who had young children were looking for more regularity in their lives and schedules. This new reality, along with the hard and long sessions that members were forced to endure throughout the 1950s and ‘60s due to the demands of the Cold War and Vietnam made the members of both chambers eager to ensure that they could look forward to a long break over the summer.
Politics would also play a role in wanting to be home in district for an extended period of time during the summer. August recess has become a very important time in the political calendar, especially in the run-up to an election. The chance for members to go home and meet with constituents during August recess has become critical in allowing them to explain their votes and other things that have happened over the course of the session; one of the most significant August recesses in memory was in August 2009, when members of both parties went home to get an earful from their constituents on the Affordable Care Act, which was now in its most heated phases of debate in Congress. This episode, of course, would have important ramifications for the country, as it would lead to the rise of the Tea Party and set up the Republican takeover of the House in the 2010 midterm elections.
There have been many times in our history, especially during war times, when members of Congress have been called back from their summer vacations and breaks to deal with our country’s most pressing issues; this summer, however, is apparently not one of those times, although there will be plenty awaiting the Congress to deal with upon their return to DC after Labor Day.
While there is much history behind August recess, it is clear that, regardless of its origins, it is a welcome break for the members, their staff, and all of those who live and work in DC. We’re all ready for the fall weather to come, but I, for one, am happy to enjoy what time is left in August, since I know my commute will once again turn ugly once September arrives.