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Wonkology: August Recess

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August 9, 2013

Noun

School's out for summer!

Members of Congress, their staff, and Washingtonians eagerly await the annual August recess, a tradition dating back to the 2nd Congress of 1791. Congress originally established August recess as a break for then part-time lawmakers so that they could escape the District's oppressive summer heat, return to their primary professions, and spend time with their families. Even with the advent of air conditioning and modern travel, Congress did not formally codify August recess until 1970, when it provided a welcome break from the non-stop legislative sessions of the 1960s. More recently, the term "district work period" has come into fashion, although "recess" remains the official term. Washingtonians appreciate August as a time when the city slows down, most noticeable in the slight reprieve from typical, gridlocked DC traffic.

Is it all fun and games?

While members frequently use at least part of the month to catch up with their families, this time has primarily come to be used to hold meetings with constituents and local interest groups back in their districts. The August recess is also an opportunity for constituents to express support or dissatisfaction for their representatives or for legislation. This reaction was most prominently seen during the 2009 recess, when, in the midst of a national debate on the Affordable Care Act, angry constituents confronted members at town hall meetings. Those rowdy interactions provided the Tea Party movement coalescing momentum in its early days. Whether heated opinions about immigration reform will boil over into this August"s town hall meetings remains to be seen.

Back to reality

When Congress returns on September 9, they will face a busy legislative calendar and rapidly approaching deadlines. While immigration reform has been the most talked-about issue, the federal fiscal year ends on September 30, and Congress has yet to pass a single appropriations bill. Additionally, some Republicans are threatening to tie funding for the Affordable Care Act to any votes on funding the government, leading to a potential showdown. Adding more fuel to the fire, the Treasury Department has indicated that the national debt ceiling will need to be raised by mid-to-late fall.

Until Congress returns to confront these and other issues, enjoy your time on the beach, at the pool, or doing your back-to-school shopping. Happy Recess from Thompson Coburn!