Congress may be out for the rest of the summer, but Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., is keeping a packed schedule.
In the early part of the week, the freshman lawmaker worked back-to-back 14-hour days, complete with three town halls, two hour-long radio talk shows, and other district work.
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“This isn’t a ‘recess’ for me!” Brooks declared. “I’m a freshman. Working hard is the only way I know how to do it.”
Maybe it’s a sign of just how bad the times are that an overwhelming majority of Brooks’s peers are spending most of the August recess back in their districts, trying to allay anxiety and explaining their decidedly short records to constituents. Over the past week, National Journal contacted the offices of all 96 freshmen to ask how they intended to spend their first “summer vacation.”
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Although about half of the freshmen are taking a week this month for an official visit to Israel, by and large they are engaging in dozens of town halls, tours, media roundtables, and job forums close to home, while at the same time “sneaking in” a few days with the family, in the words of Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D.
Gone are the days when August was the month to indulge in the perks of public office with extravagant overseas trips and junkets. With the economy stalling, 14 million people out of work, and Congress’s approval rating mired in the teens, it’s no surprise that even novice lawmakers sense that now is not the right time to look like they’re kicking back.
“America’s very concerned with what’s going on with our finances,” said Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio. “You see the reaction to the downgrade by S&P, you see the reaction to the stock market dive. Now is not the time to disengage.”
“I’ve been trying to get out and say, ‘Let’s don’t panic.’ ”
Some lawmakers are making hay of their decision to skip vacations, undoubtedly trying to win some points with constituents disgusted with the state of affairs in Washington.
Earlier this week, Rep. Hansen Clarke, D-Mich., released a statement with the headline: “Congressman Hansen Clarke Still at Work During Congressional Recess.”
“Congress is on recess, but instead of going on delegation trips overseas or taking time off, he is in the community serving the people in metro Detroit,” said an aide to Clarke, Ashley Lewis.
When contacted, a chorus of congressional spokespeople similarly took the opportunity to trumpet just how hard their bosses really work.
“He doesn’t know the word 'vacation,' ” said Millard Mule, spokesman for Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La.
“I’ve never known Scott Rigell to relax or have a vacation, so I’m not expecting him to take one this August,” said Kim Mosser, a spokeswoman for the Republican House member from Virginia.
Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., said that his boss likes to keep a packed schedule at all times. "One, he believes not only should he not take a break but that neither should the House be out of session," Piccolo said. "Two, it just isn't right to take time off and pretend that anything has been accomplished in Washington."
Also driving the decision to spend the recess at home seems to be a genuine desire to stay connected to constituents. Many of these freshmen, after all, were swept into office on promises that they would help bridge the yawning disconnect between the nation’s capital and the rest of America.
“I’ll quote the congressman here—he always says that 'the government governs best when it governs closest to the people,’” said Matt McCullough, spokesman for Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla. "The only way you can do that is to come home and hear from the people about how these decisions in Washington are affecting people back home.”
Yet despite their insistence that the August “recess” is anything but, the Jerusalem Post reported earlier this month that 47 freshmen have signed up to be a part of three congressional delegations visiting Israel. The weeklong trips are sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charitable group affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
When contacted by National Journal, some of the participating lawmakers neglected to mention the trip, and a number of aides said confidentially that they had been instructed not to discuss it for security reasons. Asked for details about the visit to Israel, an aide to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who is on the ground leading the first of these delegations, said, “We leave it up to the discretion of members.”
Israel has long been a favorite destination for privately funded congressional delegations, according to data compiled by LegiStorm, a government-transparency website. Over the past decade, Turkey and Israel were visited by lawmakers from both chambers 372 and 312 times, respectively. (India, the third-most-visited foreign country, was visited only 56 times.)
A spokesman for AIPAC said that privately funded delegations of this sort have occurred regularly for over the past decade, and that the organization may sponsor another round of trips later this year.
Although the visits are official business, the delegations to Israel at a time of economic hardship at home are likely to draw media attention, Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., was invited to participate but “lost so much … time because of the canceled district work period in July that I decided I needed to do other things,” he said. “I’m going to try to have some downtime with the family, but this is a district-work period, not a vacation.”
But even working vacations have their upsides.
“I’ve got a 7-year-old who enjoys seeing dad at breakfast,” Johnson said. “That’s what it’s all about.”