By Stephen Kaufman
IIP Staff Writer
26 December 2013
U.S. news outlets regularly highlight for Americans, who work an average of 260 days per year, that their well-paid representatives in Congress are scheduled to meet an average of only 140 days per year, spending the rest of their time in recess — or “on vacation” as some reporters describe it.
The year 2013 was an especially difficult one for members of Congress concerned about their public images. Passing only 64 pieces of legislation, the 113th Congress has been lampooned as the “do-nothing Congress” and is now officially the least productive Congress in U.S. history. The U.S. government shutdown in October did nothing to improve its popularity.
In a December 26 CNN poll, 68 percent of Americans questioned said the current Congress is the worst in their lifetimes, with only 28 percent disagreeing.
However, the popular image of America’s legislators as lazy based on all the days they are away from Washington is a false one. Congressional recesses help U.S. politicians meet a fundamental need to directly engage with the people they have been elected to represent.
NOT ALL THE WORK HAPPENS IN WASHINGTON
When Congress goes on recess, individual members are not heading to a beach, a mountain resort or an upscale retreat to spend time wooing wealthy campaign donors.
Recess means members of Congress can return home and interact with citizens of their state or district. Many members of Congress hold open meetings that allow anyone the chance to directly confront them — or occasionally even praise them — for their performance. Visits to struggling businesses and impoverished neighborhoods allow senators and representatives to restate their campaign promises to work for improvements and recap progress made.
Congressional recesses also help politicians build closer relationships with the local press, who frequently cannot afford to send a journalist to Washington to cover Congress directly.
The U.S. Founding Fathers probably never anticipated the negative perception of a short legislative year. The U.S. Constitution does not state how much time Congress needs to meet in Washington, and service in Congress was very much a part-time occupation for many decades. At the state level, many legislatures still only meet for a few weeks of each year.
An early American ideal for political representation was a member of Congress who stayed in close touch with constituents. That key job requirement persists, despite the fact that members of Congress now can travel to and from Washington in a few short hours by plane, in sharp contrast to the days or even weeks it took on horseback or train in the nation’s early decades.
A close connection with constituents is especially important for members of the U.S. House of Representatives, who must run for re-election every two years. An incumbent would be at a significant disadvantage if he or she had to be always in Washington, away from the voters, while challengers directly engaged voters and painted the incumbent as “out of touch.”
In American politics, one political strategy often employed effectively is to label an incumbent as a “Washington insider” who cares more about power struggles in Washington than about those of the home district.
HOLDING PUBLIC TRUST MEANS BECOMING PUBLIC PROPERTY?
From the nation’s founding, representatives’ return home meant a chance to reintegrate into the lives they knew before entering politics. It allows them to be approached by anyone at anytime, whether in a grocery store or at a movie theater, and asked about their performance.
As President Thomas Jefferson reportedly informed a visiting German dignitary in 1804, when an American “assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.” Most members of Congress probably would agree.
In a September 10 entry on his website, entitled “August is No Vacation,” Republican Representative John J. Duncan Jr. from Tennessee said, “I have around 700,000 bosses, and I try to vote the way my constituents want me to.” He concluded a blog entry explaining in detail how he spent his weeks away from Washington by saying, “I will take under consideration every thought and comment from my many bosses I met with during August.”
Despite the criticism they receive for their days away from Washington, most members of Congress that fill their recess time engaging their constituents find their efforts are appreciated. Many of the same polls that show Americans give Congress as a whole record-low marks for performance also report that at least half of those responding say their own representative is doing a good job.