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Day 17

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241 Days of Free Time

Congress at Recess

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

The worst part of it, of course, is that they can’t go out on recess.  They have to stay in the room until they have finished their assigned tasks.  Children in grade school know that that is a fairly severe penalty for failing to complete the assigned task on time.  Of course the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives try to avoid the word “recess.” Their members think that describing their not infrequent vacations as “recess” is too reminiscent of being in grade school (which their conduct causes many of us to think they are).  Thus Representative Eric Cantor in releasing the House calendar refers not to “recess” but to “Constituent Work Week”, thus making it sound like some constructive work House members are doing in conjunction with their constituents and not simply being out on the play ground, as it were.

The Senate calendar describes the time not in session as “State Work Period”.  That sounds like the Senators are off helping build roads and bridges and otherwise contributing to assorted capital construction projects in their states.

The official schedule for both houses, however, has not caught on to the game and continues to refer to the time off as Recess time.  That is in fact what it is.  It is time that can be spent,  if they go home, doing important things like talking with people back home  who will give them large amounts of money to help them keep their jobs.  If they do not go home they can travel  around the world on trips that the uninformed would consider boondoggles, but that, the travelers explain, give them first hand opportunities to visit the countries affected by our foreign policy

A 2009 Wall Street Journal report, attesting to their diligence, observed that  taxpayer funded travel by members of Congress had tripled between 2001 and 2009 and risen ten-fold since 1995.  In addition to Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan recent travel has also included such important destinations from as the Galapagos Islands and the biennial Paris Air show.

The dreadful thing about the legislative log jams that have confronted both Houses because of the intransigence of their members is not that funding for such trivial things as the FAA has been delayed at great cost to the taxpayers,  but that it has cut into the members’ recess time.

In 2010 their intransigence forced them to skip the Christmas recess and work through the Christmas holidays, thus missing the many fun parties that are normally given during the holiday season.   More recently they were close to being forced to work during part of the last week in September.  (The House managed to adjourn only one day later than it intended.  The Senate was forced to work a couple extra days.)  Both the Senate and the House had scheduled vacations for their members for the period from September 26 to October 2.  The members were sorely in need of time off since both chambers had been in session for approximately 14 days after returning from their month long summer vacation.  That 14-day period was so busy that neither Senator Majority Harry Reid nor House Majority Leader John Boehner gave their respective members time to report on “How I spent my summer vacation.”  Instead they immediately began being unpleasant to one another with the result that they were once again threatened with not being permitted to go out on recess until they resolved their differences.  As is often the case in contentious classroom situations, the principal, or in this case the president, is virtually powerless to restore order to the classroom.  That task lies with the respective leaders of the two classrooms and neither holds much sway over the folks in the room.  Accordingly, their recess time was slightly shortened.

Although all constituents, even the unemployed, will feel a touch of sympathy for their representatives when they are forced to work extra days, it is not as much of a hardship as some might think.  According to the Senate Daily Digest, during the last 20 years Senators have been in session between 123 and 191 days a year.  House members have probably worked about the same amount although a 20-year comparison is not readily available.  The rest of the time is recess time.

In 2011 House members expect to work about 123 days and will have 241 days of free time. Senators anticipate having to work for 120 days leaving them about 245 days of free time. Compared with how many days their constituents who are lucky enough to have jobs are  permitted to go out on recess, our elected representatives are faring extremely well.

It’s just the country that is suffering.  Given their behavior when they’re not out on recess, perhaps the country would suffer less if they simply stayed on recess the entire year.  They would not accomplish less than they seem to now and there would be a great deal less unpleasant squabbling in the classroom.

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.