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Politicians on Vacation

(Associated Press Photo)

Everybody needs a break but politicians always seem to get slammed for taking vacations when the country is in crisis.  The First Family is off to Martha’s Vineyard for 11 days.  Congress is in the midst of six weeks off.  Is one more excessive than the other?  Beats me but I do know I don’t have the wealth or vacation time for either.

The Presidential Vacation

Now the facts and some history. The 1st family begins its 6th vacation of the year today, heading up to Martha’s Vineyard for 11 days of summer downtime.  Some think this is a bit much, but for the President himself, his 5 vacations have totaled exactly 20 days.  (It’s only five vacations for the President because he didn’t do that fancy Spain trip the 1st Lady went on).   

George W. Bush averaged over 100 days off per year through his two terms.   Obama also tends to get interrupted on his vacations having had to pull away once for the Detroit underwear bomber and once again for the death of Senator Ted Kennedy.

Last year, there was a great uproar about the 1st family choosing to go to Martha’s Vineyard as it was seen as too upscale for the average American to relate to.  Ironically, Bill Clinton once commissioned a poll on where he should go on vacation.  And he ended up going to Martha’s Vineyard too.  I suppose 1st families could go to Six Flags and shop at Walmart if they really wanted to relate to “average” Americans but I do not foresee this happening anytime soon.

The Congressional Vacation 

And then there’s Congress.  One curious question about what is not happening this congressional break is crazy, out-of-control town hall meetings like those that spread like wildfire last Spring.   As a stumped colleague recently told me, “It’s not like people are any happier.”  

Here is a highly amusing, official explanation from the official website of the United States Senate on how these long summer Congressional recesses came to be.  It all started, apparently, because of a lack of air conditioning and the dawning recognition that August in Washington, D.C., just plain sucks:

 By tradition and by law, Congress recesses for the month of August. During the Senate’s early years, members attempted to adjourn in the spring, before the summer’s heat and oppressive humidity overwhelmed them and their small staff. When the Senate moved to its current chamber in 1859, senators were optimistic about its “modern” ventilation system, but they soon found the new system ineffective. Long sessions were plagued by hot and stormy weather. The 1920s brought  “manufactured weather”  to the Senate chamber, but even modern climate control could not cope with the hottest days, forcing 20th-century senators to escape the summer heat. In 1970, finally facing the reality of long sessions, Congress mandated a summer break as part of the Legislative Reorganization Act. Today, the August recess continues to be a regular feature of the Senate schedule–a chance for senators to spend time with family, meet with constituents in their home states, and catch up on summer reading

Not mentioned in the official explanation of what lawmakers do during recess- is raise money.  Other than a short real vacation getaway here and there, that’s what members of Congress always do during recess.  It has been well-documented that about 40% of a lawmaker’s time is spent raising funds for re-election.   Spending time with family, meeting with constituents and catching up on summer reading is not quite the whole story.

There’s also a good case to be made that while it may appear to be a bit of a disconnect that lawmakers vacation so much- we should probably all be grateful for the inactivity and the peace and quiet that comes with their long absences.  It’s just that much less damage that can be done to the nation.

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