Fishing in Canada. Island-hopping in Hawaii. Crossing paths with Al Gore. Throw in some fundraising and a few town-hall meetings, or “sweet teas,” as one Southern congressman calls them, and it must be August recess.
Congress is wrapping up its work week, and most lawmakers will soon be jetting out of the capital until after Labor Day. With five weeks outside Washington—and no national election on the other side of the break—the exhale is almost audible.
So what do House members and senators do with their time? The answer depends on who you talk to. Most will reconnect with family and their districts, meeting with constituents and engaging in politics at the retail level back home.
“I will be having sweet tea at some point, my version of a town hall,” said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., before ticking off at least a dozen events, including visits to a Best Buy, meetings with a pastor, post-office namings, and a trip to the beach with his family. “Everybody loves the sweet tea, man. Sweet tea with Tim.”
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, is headed back to his home state for the wedding of his daughter Larissa. “It was planned during the August break for a reason,” Thune said. “That was probably the best time to do it.”
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa is headed to Ethiopia—his first visit there—as part of an Aspen Institute event. Then, he’s headed to Slovenia with 11 members of his family. “My mother was born there,” Harkin said. “It’s a family deal, and then on the way back I’m gonna stop in Iceland.”
Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly, who represents a Virginia district in suburban Washington, is headed to Norway as part of a congressional delegation.
“I’ve been to Norway many, many, many times in the private sector,” he said. “I’ve never been to the Arctic Circle, so from an environmental point of view I’m really keen on seeing what they’re seeing in terms of changes up there, which are reportedly very dramatic.”
One of the lawmakers who has to travel the farthest just to get home, Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, is planning to visit every island of his state over the break. “I live 5,000 miles from the Capitol, so it’s important for me to spend as much time as possible understanding and reconnecting with the priorities of the people of my state,” he said.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., is going on a fishing trip to Canada with his 83-year-old father. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said he is headed to China, along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he will be crisscrossing the Bluegrass State meeting with constituents. Paul, a medical doctor who opened an ophthalmology practice in Bowling Green after his residency, is also planning to do a pro-bono cataract surgery in Paducah, Ky.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is cohosting the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas on Aug. 13. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz will also be there. On Aug. 19, Reid will be on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe for the annual Lake Tahoe Summit, where Gore will be the special guest. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and California Gov. Jerry Brown are also expected to attend.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will be “on the road” fundraising for House Republicans and attending political events, spokesman Cory Fritz said. Fritz would not release any details.
Unlike most Americans who get a summer vacation, Congress’s summer break is mandated by law. The 1970 Legislative Reorganization Act made what was once a congressional tradition into a legal requirement.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done. Congress leaves town with a slate of unfinished business, ranging from the farm bill to spending measures to a solution that would avert a government shutdown at the end of September. Staff may work on many of these issues during August.
But for lawmakers, the point of the recess is not so much talking to each other. They do that here in the Capitol. It’s more about getting face-time with the voters—schedules permitting.
“I live one day at a time,” Connolly said.
This article appears in the August 1, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as What Does Congress Do Over Recess?.