Cited in Washington Examiner:

Marian Currinder for the R Street Institute: The August recess has been a congressional tradition since 1791 but became a statutory requirement with the passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. Given the Capitol’s lack of modern ventilation systems, the break was initially a way for members to escape Washington’s oppressive heat and humidity. And up until the 20th century, many members held other jobs and wanted time at home to focus on those professions. Serving in Congress was not a full-time career, and no ethics law barred members from holding multiple jobs.

As the institution grew and member responsibilities expanded, Congress spent more time in session. By the 1960s, newer members with younger families began pressing for a more predictable legislative calendar. According to Senate Historian Don Ritchie, these members “were looking for regularity and wanted to be able to promise their families in January that they could have an August vacation.” The 1960s were also a time of intense legislating, with lawmakers taking up major issues like the Vietnam War, President Johnson’s Great Society programs, and civil rights. The workload kept them in session through several summers during that decade.

The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 presented members with an opportunity to make a longstanding tradition legal. The first official August recess began on August 6, 1971. Congress traditionally returns to Washington after Labor Day weekend.

Business obviously continues while Congress is in recess — the action just doesn’t take place on the floor. And should circumstances warrant, Congress can be called back into session during a recess. Pushing the recess start date back or canceling recess altogether are also (less popular) options. In theory, a looming deadline should force action and incentivize members to get their work done before leaving town. In practice, this happens less and less. The broken appropriations process exemplifies this failure.