The Important Role of August Recess in the Political and Legislative Process
August 11, 2011 05:06 pm
Washington, DC empties out quickly in early August as members of Congress race to highways and airports to begin their month-long “district work period.” Packed with town hall meetings, “listening sessions,” Rotary club speeches, county fair walkthroughs, political fundraisers and events, with some time squeezed in for a family vacation, August is a hectic time for any senator or House member. I remember returning to Washington a few times in September so exhausted that the routine of committee meetings, constant votes, and late night sessions was actually a relief. (Watch video of Gov. Wise talking about the August recess by clicking on the image to the left).
The importance of the August recess in the political and legislative process is rarely noted, yet this four- to five-week period may do more to shape each year’s political direction than any other time of year. And for constituents, August presents the best opportunity to weigh in on past legislative actions while trying to shape future ones.
So why is August such a critical month for federal decisionmakers? First, the summer break, particularly in a nonelection year, is a line of demarcation between the Congress that began in the Capitol chambers with idealistic swearing-in speeches in January and the hardened legislators returning beaten and bruised eight months later. Think of the Civil War’s first battle of Manassas with green union troops marching out with songs and pounding drums, then slogging back, irrevocably marked by the smoke and shell of battle. In the heat of August, both the public and its elected representatives have often moved to very different places and attitudes from the snows of January.
Second, August presents the most concerted and lengthy period for committed constituents to communicate with their federal representatives. Unlike most congressional visits home-usually a weekend foray with the occasional weeklong recess-August through Labor Day is a constituent contact marathon for most federal representatives. No one- or two-day handshaking sprints here, but a brutal multiweek slog through the streets of public opinion.
Can August recess affect congressional behavior and actions? Absolutely. Just remember health care and the 2009 August recess with its unforgettable images of senators confronting hundreds of angry constituents. Arguably, that August recess was the coming-out party for the Tea Party. Very few elected representatives staggered back to Washington that September not having felt any impact. And come the next election, a large number did not return.
Which brings us to the third reason August recess is so much a politically shaping time-the upcoming elections. In an odd-numbered year like this one, August is the real kickoff to the reelection campaign that is still fourteen months away. For the incumbent, this is the last time she gets to attend events fully cloaked in the official status of officeholder. Next August, she will be considered a full-fledged candidate and treated much differently. The Lions Club that invited her as the officeholder this time will be inviting her to debate her opponent next year.
For both officeholder and likely challenger, this August marks the end of the innocence of the incumbent and the onset of the confrontation of campaigns. Possible campaign themes get tried out in speeches and press releases. Incumbents endure a month-long focus group on their past performance. I remember one volatile political season when one returning congressman noted, “I can tell I’m doing better. In the parades, less people are waving with just one finger.”
For constituents, August is the time to deliver your particular important message. Some concentrate on coming to Washington when the Congress is in session for a “Hill Day” to visit their congressional representative’s office. I always believed and still believe that “Home Day,” when a large number of constituents meet with their elected official when he is home, is far more effective. Many more people are able to drive ten miles for a meeting on familiar territory than travel 500 miles to the daunting U.S. Capitol. Plus, the constituents often have more quality time and can draw upon the local surroundings to make their points. Taking the federal representative to meet low-income students learning to apply to college at the local college-ready program will do more to affect his legislative attitude than a tome of statistics on what first-generation college goers need to succeed.
Likewise, August presents the opportunity to demonstrate that repetition can be the mother of learning. Hearing “our high schools need fixing” once or twice during a month of town meetings may not register very deeply; hearing the message repeated countless times day after day-while shopping in the grocery store, meeting workers in the factory or office building, or browsing in the large retail outlet-soon begins to register on the political seismic meter.
The August recess often has one other major legislative impact, and this is often when members of Congress begin making irreversible policy statements. Once the fateful words “when I go back in September, I will not vote for … ” are uttered at a Lions Club lunch or in a press release, the political concrete hardens and virtually nothing can extract the representative from his position.
I always believed that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind, had to pass both houses before the August recess to avoid the implacable declarations that undermine compromises. The one hope now is that ESEA has received so little congressional action-at least formally-that representatives have not issued hard-core statements. However, the fact that the Congress returns in September even more politically driven than before tips the scales to continued inaction … unless what representatives see, hear, and experience in the next few weeks galvanizes action in the fall.
August recess always creates major legislative ripples. The elected representative in your area hears the message loud and clear about a particular issue, returns to Washington and shares experiences with his colleagues. Then the representative you elect tells the party leader about the importance of acting. The party leader then courts votes in two places-first his home district to be elected as a representative and then by his fellow representatives to be elected to a leadership post-and decides whether a particular issue now requires action.
In the American political system, August is never just the extended recess from an extended legislative session, but the grueling renewal that will shape much of the final congressional actions. What those important actions will look like is often shaped in that unsung congressional tradition called August recess.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. From 1983-2001, Wise was one of West Virginia’s representatives in the U.S. Congress.