When members of Congress left Washington last week for a two-week recess, they left behind a number of seemingly urgent unresolved matters, including the continued funding of the federal government.
There is little time to waste: the Senate returns to work on Capitol Hill on April 24; the House is back in session on April 25. Lawmakers need to reach a deal to avert a government shutdown by April 28.
Following a failed Republican effort to find consensus within their own party to pass the health care reform legislation they have campaigned on for seven years, there is cause for pessimism that they can pass a continuing resolution in four days. Leadership in both chambers and the White House remain confident they can work it out in time, though.
That confidence has not silenced the grumbling and frustration from pundits and some in the public that accompany any extended break Congress takes from the ongoing legislative wrangling in Washington. Headlines and opinion columns often portray lawmakers as vacationing and relaxing, oblivious to the needs of the nation.
Political analyst Harlan Hill expressed the typical objection bluntly.
“They haven’t gotten healthcare done! They haven’t gotten tax reform done! We don’t even have a solution for the wall!” he shouted during an appearance on “The Truth with Dennis Michael Lynch” last Thursday. “We elected these guys to go to Congress and get something done!”
“You’re there to work and serve the American people, not to go back to your district and gallivant and hang out with your family and do nothing,” Hill said. “In this age of social media, you don’t have to go back to your district to meet with constituents like in years past.”
Congress also took a one-week recess in February, with two more scheduled for the end of May and beginning of July. Members will then return to their districts for the entire month of August. They take a week off from Washington in mid-October, another at Thanksgiving, and then they recess for the second half of December. This is in addition to a weekly schedule in which they rarely have to be in D.C. for more than four days in a row.
In total, the House is scheduled to be in session for 145 days in 2017. The Senate is at work at the Capitol slightly more often in 2017, about 182 days.
Specific complaints about lawmakers’ superficially generous vacation schedule vary, but they usually relate to a belief that members of Congress either do not work at all or have light schedules when they are in their home states and districts.
Experts dispute this characterization of what the Senate calendar officially calls a “state work period.”
“That’s like telling a reporter they’re only working when they’re on the air,” said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which works with members of Congress to enhance their operations and communication with constituents.
“There’s a lot of other things that go into the job besides voting on C-SPAN,” Fitch said.
In theory, these work weeks enable members of Congress to spend time with constituents, find out what they want the federal government to do, and communicate with them face-to-face about what is being done.
“Members are doing at home, in some respects, some of the same things they’re doing here,” said Steve Billet, director of the Legislative Affairs Master’s Program at George Washington University.
Social media postings Monday showed members of Congress already out visiting schools, businesses, and community centers thanking constituents in person and getting their feedback.
Still, the fact that they spend so much time at home inevitably casts attention on the unfinished business they are not getting done on Capitol Hill.
“It raises questions about just how much legislating is actually being done by members of Congress,” Billet said.
In 2011, Fitch’s organization and the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed members of Congress to learn exactly what they do with their time throughout the year and how they feel about it. From the 25 responses they received, they were able to identify some trends that contradict the perception of lawmakers just blowing off work for two-thirds of the year.
The study found that members spent nearly as many hours per week working when they are back home as they do in Washington, and still about 20 hours more than a traditional 40-hour work week. While they estimated they worked about 70 hours per week when the House is in session, they work 59 when it is out of session.
The type of work members of Congress do at home differs from their focus on Capitol Hill; predictably, they spend more time with constituents, but perhaps surprisingly, they do not devote a much larger share of their time to family and friends.
When the House is in session, members spend more than one-third of their time on legislative and policy matters. That drops to 12 percent at home, but constituent services work jumps from 17 percent to 32 percent. They said they spend a little under 20 percent of their time on fundraising and campaign business in both locations, but they devote about five percent more of their time to media appearances when in their home districts.
About 86 percent of respondents said they spend too little time on family, friends, and their personal lives, but nearly the same number, 83 percent, said their families are supportive of their work. More than 65 percent said they missed a major family event in the last year because of work.
Particularly with shorter breaks, some members of Congress travel on business. During a February recess, a group of lawmakers visited the U.S./Mexico border as they prepared to tackle border security matters back in Washington.
Overall, 53 percent of members agreed that their schedule in D.C. is more productive than when they are in their district, while 33 percent disagreed.
Due to the small sample size of the survey, the Congressional Management Foundation cautions against drawing sweeping conclusions from it, but the report does note that the data is consistent with past research and firsthand observations.
When members describe their plans for a recess to the media for a typical “Congress is going on vacation” piece, they often describe packed schedules of meetings, town halls, fundraisers, and occasional family time.
“These are politicians,” Fitch said. “They like seeing people. They like interacting with people. Most members of Congress prefer that type of interaction.”
It may be true that social media and improved communication technology make it easier to interact remotely, but members of Congress clearly feel that some in-person meetings cannot be replaced. They need to understand and interpret the demands coming from their constituents and ensure that they are satisfying them.
“I can point you to a couple of former members of Congress who forgot that rule,” Fitch said.
Even if it is not necessary to physically be on the ground in their districts, Billet noted that constituents have come to expect their members to be in town from time to time.
“Members of Congress do more than legislate,” he said. “They represent.”
Recesses have drawn more media attention than usual this year, with members of Congress—often Republicans—confronted on camera by angry constituents opposed to President Donald Trump’s agenda. Liberal groups have advised supporters to try to create these viral moments, much as conservatives did during the debate over the Affordable Care Act in 2009.
Some lawmakers have avoided holding town halls entirely in recent months or resorted to tele-town halls that allow them to communicate with constituents without the risk of newsmaking drama.
That said, there is also a danger in staying in D.C., even if it is with the intent of getting things done on behalf of the voters.
“If they hang around Washington too much, they get criticized back in their district for having ‘gone Washington,’ so there’s a balance to be struck there,” Billet said.
In the CMF/SHRM survey, only 21 percent of members said they believe most of their constituents understand their day-to-day activities. However, 95 percent said staying in touch with constituents is one of the most important aspects of their job.
“If they’re misreading the public, then they have a problem,” Billet said.
As House leadership and conservative Freedom Caucus members negotiated over health care last week, some pushed to blow off the recess and work through the next two weeks until a deal is reached. Such talk of potentially canceling a break is not uncommon—either from grandstanding members or frustrated leaders—but it is rare for either chamber to follow through on the threat.
“Sometimes for political reasons, they have to ‘show that they’re doing something,’” Fitch said.
The trips home are beneficial for many members, not because they are getting a ludicrous amount of vacation time while being paid to work on behalf of American taxpayers, but because spending time among their constituents can recharge their batteries and keep them connected to the people they represent in D.C.
“Being around Washington means that you’re around the Washington establishment,” Billet said. “That’s not a good place to be.”