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The History Of The Congressional Recess


Before the Congress takes a break from its legislative work, there is this ritual that must be performed by the person occupying the speaker's chair.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Pursuant to clause 12(A) of Rule I, the chair declares the House will recess subject to call of the chair.


GREENE: Well, how about that for some drama? So Congress is in recess right now, and some of you have wondered what exactly happens when lawmakers get out of Washington. We've collected your questions, and we're going to pose them to commentator Cokie Roberts, who joins us now.

Hi, Cokie.


GREENE: All right. Well, I'm glad Congress is getting its time off from work. And here's our first question. It comes from Tony Noland.

TONY NOLAND: Once the change was made so that voice votes and committee meetings would take place only on Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays, ostensibly giving members more time to be back in their districts for every four-day weekend, the long seasonal recesses should've been made superfluous. Why weren't they?

GREENE: So he's saying Congress gets enough time off. They don't need these long recesses. All right. What's your answer?

ROBERTS: The summer recess is really meant as a vacation. It's time to be with your family or just goof off. The other recesses really aren't very long. They tend to be much shorter and focused around holidays like Presidents Day, the 4th of July, et cetera. But Mr. Noland's making a good point. Members spend a lot of time going back and forth to their districts every weekend and, some years, very little time in Washington doing legislative work, and it creates all kinds of problems that we didn't have historically.

GREENE: What kind of problems does that create?

ROBERTS: Well, it used to be the families came here and stayed, particularly when transportation was a whole lot harder. In my childhood, when my father was in Congress, I went to school half a year in New Orleans and half a year in Washington for years. It meant that people were here in Washington. They got to know each other. They got to form friendships. They were across the aisle and across the dome. They got to know each other so they could come together on legislation. And they also became experts on legislation because they were here for a concentrated period of time. That's no longer true.

GREENE: Well, was there ever a time that lawmakers were actually - just stayed in Washington too long and didn't get out to take those breaks?

ROBERTS: Well, I'm sure there are probably plenty of times, but the one I loved best was in 1820, the year of the first Missouri Compromise. John Quincy Adams' wife, Louisa Catherine Adams, wrote that she went to a meeting of the trustees of the orphan asylum and learned that they would need a new building because - and I'm quoting here, David - "the session had been very long. The fathers of the nation had left 40 cases to be provided for by the public. Congress has left behind 40 pregnant women." And there were only, like, 186 members of the House at the time.


ROBERTS: Now, some of them might have been recidivist. I don't know. But she said - she was writing to her father-in-law, the former President John Adams, and she said the members of Congress should give up the pay increases that they had voted for themselves so that it could be appropriated, quote, "as a fund to the support of the institution."


ROBERTS: So that's why you need to write women's history because you don't learn those things from the men's letters.

GREENE: Oh, I love that.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

GREENE: One more question from a listener - this comes from Daniel Dennis on Twitter. He asks, does anyone stick around to do work? I guess he's wondering if Capitol Hill just becomes a total ghost town or if there are people who stay behind during recess.

ROBERTS: Well, during most recesses, of course, the staff is behind, and there are thousands of staff members, and they do a huge amount of work. But it's August, David. And you know August in Washington. It is pretty much a ghost town.

GREENE: Cokie, thanks so much, as always.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, David.

GREENE: All right. Commentator Cokie Roberts. And if you want to ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work, you can shoot us an email - askcokie@npr.org - or just send us a tweet. Just use the hashtag #AskCokie.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL MICHELS AFFAIR'S "C.R.E.A.M.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.