What Congressional Recesses Mean for the Federal Agencies

According to a recent Gallup poll, congressional approval stands at 13 percent, just three percentage points above last year’s all-time low of 10 percent approval. With numbers like these, it’s no wonder that members of Congress are eager to leave Washington and head home to their states and districts. Congress officially began its annual Easter/Passover recess on Monday, March 25; both chambers will reconvene the week of April 8. When members leave town, the pace on Capitol Hill slows, presenting the federal agencies with important opportunities to interact with otherwise unavailable, over-scheduled congressional staff.

Congress in session: House versus Senate
This year, the House is scheduled to be in session a total of 126 days; June will be the busiest month, with the chamber scheduled to meet for 16 days. The House calendar can be accessed here.

When Republicans took control of the House in January 2011, party leadership established a schedule that would allow members to spend every third week or so at home, with their constituents. In a letter to his colleagues, Majority Leader Eric Cantor explained that the goal of the new calendar was “to create certainty, increase efficiency and productivity in the legislative process, protect committee time, and afford Members the opportunity to gain valuable input from their constituents at home.”

From the leadership’s perspective, the less time members spend in Washington, the less opportunity there is for them to become loathsome “Washington insiders.” It is not unusual for the House to meet for fewer days during election years, as members want to spend more time campaigning in their districts. The House tends to meet for more days during odd-numbered years, but 2013 may buck that trend. With the exception of 2005, when the House met for 120 legislative days, the chamber has met for more than 126 days in each odd-numbered year since 1991. Days in session calendars, from 1979 through 2013, can be found here.

The Senate is scheduled to meet for a total of 195 days this year. Historically, the Senate logs more days in session than the House, in part because of practices unique to the chamber. In order to avoid procedural obstacles that can occur when a new legislative day begins, the Senate will sometimes convene, then adjourn minutes later without conducting any significant business. These “pro forma” sessions still count as a day of session. The Senate’s 2013 calendar can be found here.

What is a “recess”?
Most members of Congress flinch at the word “recess” and prefer to describe their time at home as “district work periods.” Indeed, members’ district schedules are every bit as packed how.

as their Washington schedules, including busy days on Saturdays and even Sundays. They connect with constituents, organize and attend all kinds of meetings, participate in local events, visit every corner of their districts, and keep in constant touch with their Washington offices. A vacation it is not. The bottom line is that most members work hard, whether they are in Washington or at home.

For feds, congressional recesses present opportunities
A condensed congressional calendar means that more work gets squeezed into fewer days. For this reason, congressional recesses present good opportunities for executive branch personnel to meet and brief congressional staffers. When the members are away, committee and personal staff typically use the time to get caught up and plan ahead. Their schedules tend to be a bit more flexible, so they are more approachable and open to meet.

Congressional recesses also present agency personnel in the field with great opportunities to meet with members while they are in the district. Meetings, briefings, and tours in the district help members make the important connection between their work in Washington and what the agencies are doing. This is tremendously important for members and the agencies.

Marian Currinder is Senior Fellow and Curriculum Chair at the Government Affairs Institute

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