The Congressional Spectator

Mr. Lawmaker Goes on Vacation

Once again, Congress takes August off. Should we be grateful?

By 8.5.13

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Congress is going on vacation for the entire month of August… again! The lawmakers’ “summer recess” is an annual tradition that neither the troubled economy, the continuing sequester, nor the urgent need for immigration reform will change. All that proclaimed urgency will just be put on the back burner for 37 days until their return on September 9.

Meanwhile, members of the U.S. Supreme Court are enjoying their annual three-month July to October recess. It seems like just about everything in Washington is shutting down for the entire month of August.

This August hiatus is so European. Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, and other busy cities on the Continent are emptying out for the annual month-long summer siesta. Productivity just takes a back seat to their sacred summer holiday.

So, maybe we should take the dog-days of summer off next year, just like the Europeans, and our own lawmakers, and justices ( and don't forget about teachers!).

To be sure, American lawmakers work hard… when they are working. Overtime sessions of the House and Senate are broadcast late into evening primetime on C-SPAN 1 and C-SPAN 2 respectively. In fact, occasionally Senators “pull an all-nighter,” to showcase or should we say “grandstand” their earnest debates to the voters back home.

However, they are rarely in Washington working. The 113th session of Congress, like those that came before, has been punctuated with numerous holidays and vacations, euphemistically referred to as “district work periods.” The current session, which convened January 3, 2013, will be interrupted by about 80 vacation days, including the current August recess.

For this, Congressmen and Senators are paid $169,300 per year, while the leaders receive $188,100 and the Speaker of the House is paid $217,400. In addition they enjoy the premier health care program in the country, an obscenely rich pension plan, and other lavish fringe benefits. Not a bad package for a job with all that vacation time and the entire month of August off.

My friend Dominick thinks lawmakers in Congress and our European friends have the right idea about an August break. So at the end of July he sent his boss a memo letting him know that he would be on vacation for the entire month:

“Dear Boss---- This is to let you know that I’ll be taking August off. I know our company is facing the greatest financial crisis in its long history, but I need some time to myself and some quality time with my family. 

"Now, I don’t want you to think I’m just shirking responsibility as national sales manager by walking away from our sagging sales numbers which you told shareholders were ‘disappointing.’ I know our stock has sunk to an all-time low due to our third consecutive multimillion dollar quarterly loss. Frankly, I’m as concerned as you are about turning this financial mess and restoring our bottom line. 

"But, the beach and golf links beckon. You’ve always told us carpe diem, seize the day… so I’m doing just that, it just happens to be 31 in a row.

"It’s called August, and as my teenager would say, ‘I’m so out of here.’”

His boss responded within minutes by return e-mail: “You are so right. You are out of here, as in gone, finito, fired. Your final paycheck will be mailed to you shortly.” His e-mail went on to discuss the time honored concept of “a day’s pay for a day’s work” and the importance of the Protestant work ethic to American prosperity and the success of our capitalist economy. 

If the economic crisis and urgent call for immigration reform are indeed the national emergency politicians say they are and warrant immediate attention, maybe Congress should continue its session through August and defer its annual summer recess this year.

Then again, as Mark Twain famously remarked, “No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” So, maybe it’s in taxpayers’ best interests to simply wish lawmakers a pleasant vacation and urge them to consider taking September off too.

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About the Author

Gerald D. Skoning is a Chicago lawyer who specializes in labor and employment law.