Reporter’s Notebook: Congress’ ‘August recess’ is hardly a vacation

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The concept of the “August recess” is a mirage in Congress. This is where Congress purportedly takes off for four or five weeks during the dog days of summer. Lawmakers actually take vacation time during this period. But they also use the period to meet and work with constituents back in their districts or states.

It’s the largest chunk of time Congress budgets each year to operate away from Washington. The concept of such a lengthy block of time away from Washington may be healthy. But concept rarely meets reality. And that’s why the “August recess” is often little more than a mirage.

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The mercury has kissed more than 90 degrees in Washington nearly 30 times this summer. Few places are toastier in “The Swamp” than Capitol Hill. The heat haze refracts light off the white, shale concrete blocks on the Capitol plaza. If you were on the East Front of the Capitol, the heat warps the staunch columns on the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress into rippling waves.

These are the necessary conditions to trigger a mirage, shimmering in the July swelter.

What Congress does (or doesn’t do) in July will dictate what lawmakers do in August.

This is ironic, because Congress tries to predict what it will do in July and August – in December.

To wit:

Imagine it’s three weeks before Christmas in Washington. An icy rain seals streets and sidewalks outside the Capitol in a cold glaze. Tiny Christmas trees decorate the paper-engulfed desks of Congressional aides. At that point on the calendar, all anyone is focused on is what Congress needs to do to abandon Washington for the year. And in early December, top Congressional leaders etch out the projected legislative calendar for the coming year. Some time off around Easter and Passover. How close to June does Memorial Day fall? Is July 4 on a weekend? And then, there is “the August recess.”

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Depending on how the calendar looks, they book either the House or Senate to meet for a few days at the beginning of August. Or maybe not at all. What about political conventions every four years? They then take into consideration Labor Day and the September or October dates of the Jewish holidays. That dictates when either chamber returns to session. Or, comes back for a few days after Labor Day, then takes off again immediately for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In other words, they’re trying to make a judgment about a schedule in August when they haven’t even figured out December yet.

So they slapdash the August recess on the calendar for the next year. This is wishful Congressional scheduling. And the next time you see that Congressional schedule issued in December, know that a post on the dark web from QAnon is likely more accurate than the Congressional schedule in August.

Everyone on Capitol Hill knows that chunk of weeks blocked out for August are nothing short of a hoax.

We don’t know exactly what the rest of July and August will look like as lawmakers try to pass an infrastructure bill. Or even infrastructure bills. Work continues on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Democrats aren’t exactly aligned on their own, $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill. There are pushes by progressives to stock the bill with provisions on immigration and even DACA. And moderate Democrats are worried about the overall price tag. Especially as there is a push to tack on dental and vision care under federal health programs.

Shortly after July 4, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote to senators about upcoming challenges passing infrastructure.

Schumer told his colleagues “we have a lot of work to do.” He noted that senators will be “working long nights, weekends and remaining in Washington” into August.

What’s the real news here is if Schumer hadn’t said all of that. Predicting doom and gloom for August vacation plans. This is just what veterans of Capitol Hill have come to expect in August. Careful with your scheduling. Keep your vacation plans flexible. Maybe take off in June.

So here’s what’s in the mix: a bipartisan infrastructure bill, crafted by a coalition of senators. Running along a simultaneous side track is “budget reconciliation” measure. This is the legislative “vehicle” Senate Democrats are crafting to handle their own, $3.5 trillion infrastructure package. Democrats aim to handle that infrastructure bill under special budget reconciliation rules – permitted only twice in a two-year Congress – to avoid a filibuster.

“My hope is that by early August, we will have a budget bill on the floor and it will pass,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “And when we come back from the break, we’ll pass the reconciliation package.”

This is cryptic.

You must have the budget blueprint first before considering the actual infrastructure package under the special budget gambit. So does that mean after the fabled August break? Doubtful. Schumer had intimated the Senate wasn’t going anywhere until most of this was wrapped up. That would put off addressing the actual Democratic infrastructure plan until early September.

But, it’s doubtful Congressional Democrats and the White House want to wait that long. Especially since a fight to fund the government and lift the debt ceiling await. And Democrats may even want to glom an increase onto the debt ceiling onto the infrastructure plan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., just noted the GOP won’t help Democrats increase the debt ceiling.

“Debt limit brinksmanship has become the norm when Republicans are out of power,” observed House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., “Their hypocrisy on this and other matters of fiscal responsibility is staggering.”

Speaking of the House, we haven’t even figured out when the House will tackle either infrastructure bill. All we know is that the Senate has to go first.

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“We cannot respond to some of the legislation until the Senate acts,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “We will not take up the infrastructure bill until the Senate passes the reconciliation bill.”

Speaking of those calendars, let’s consider the official House calendar for a moment. You know, the one written late last year.

The House, officially, is scheduled to leave town on Friday, July 30. Then, not return at all until Monday, Sept. 20.

Right.

One could easily envision a scenario where the House in fact ditches town at the end of the week, but comes back to session – in August – once the Senate sends the House the bipartisan infrastructure bill and/or the reconciliation framework, plus the Democrats’-only infrastructure measure.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., predicted to Fox that the House would return to session toward the end of August. You could also anticipate a schedule where the House and Senate toggle back and forth into session over the coming weeks when one body or the other is required to meet to address various components of the infrastructure plans.

So, don’t expect everyone to abandon Washington soon. Especially as Democrats try to finish their own bipartisan bill.

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“It’s not the patience of progressives I’m worried about. It’s the urgency of people’s needs that I’m worried about,’ said Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. “The urgency is great because the need is great.”

There is so much to hammer out. Not much time. That’s why the “August recess” is spectral at best. An elusive mirage, spelled out on a cold day in December, wishfully projecting a break, eight months into the future.



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