Time off a matter of tradition for Congress
Aug 30, 2011 | 1248 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
By Jody Norwood

Tribune-Courier News Editor

jnorwood@tribunecourier.com

It’s 8-30... do you know where you congressman is?

The month of August is almost over, which is good news for the public. For members of Congress, it means they have to get back to work.

Much ado has been made in recent weeks about President Barack Obama taking a vacation to Martha’s Vineyards (which he did) while the economy crashed and burned (which it isn’t). But Congress’s annual month-long break gets hardly as much attention, while having a much larger effect.

While presidents make a convenient punching bag as an angst outlet, their authority is still pretty limited. Granted, it’s much more expanded than was originally intended. In the beginning the role of president was to be a hodge podge of referee and emcee. The actual lawmaking fell on the ones dubbed lawmakers, the members of Congress.

So why, then, the stink over one person taking a week off to play some golf, compared to an entire month for the other 535?

Tradition plays a bit of a role.

Historically (as in the time before air conditioning, iPods and private jets) Congress took off the month of August to escape the heat. According to the Senate’s web site, ambassadors used to receive hardship pay for “enduring Washington’s oppressive summer heat.”

Also, back in the day it took some members of Congress several days to travel home from the east cost.

In other words, we’re used to it. By “we” I mean the media. The same ones who scour for pictures of the President wearing funny pants and holding a golf club to raise a stink about his vacation are the same ones who have grown accustomed to members of Congress taking a month-long vacation. Even if something doesn’t seem like the best idea, we can grow pretty accustomed to it over time.

There are also shorter recesses sprinkled through each session. They aren’t called vacations. Instead, lawmakers call them “work breaks” or “district breaks.” The idea is that lawmakers need time away from other lawmakers to go back home and meet with constituents.

Of course, on the other hand, members of Congress already have a three day work week. Mondays and Fridays are considered “travel days” for lawmakers to head back home. Or campaign. Or hit the golf course. Or just hang out in Washington.

And then there’s adjournment, usually set for sometime in October or November.

In politics it’s important to take everything with a grain of salt.

Members of Congress get plenty of breaks, but it doesn’t compare to the time off of lawmakers decades ago. It wasn’t too far back in this country’s history when running things was a part-time occupation. As lawmakers increased the salary to be more in line with a full-time job, they’ve also spent more time at the office. Prior to the 1930s, lawmakers only worked six months of the year, instead of beginning sessions in January and working most of the year.

In recent years, they’ve even included a few five day work weeks. It’s still not the seven day work week many Americans face, but at least Congress is catching up.
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