Congressional Recess: An Explainer

Explainers: Democracy Government
Congressional Recess - Democracy Explainer

Congressional Work Periods

What is a Congressional Recess?

Members of Congress, U.S. Senators and Representatives, split their work into two categories- in session and out of session. Periods when Congress is in Washington D.C. working on legislation are called in session, and when Senators and Representatives head back to their respective states or districts, they are considered out of session, or in recess. Both periods are very important for members of Congress and for the American people.

Congress is in session less than half the year with an average of 147 days for the House of Representatives and 165 days for the Senate. The remaining days are spent in recess at various periods during the calendar year with the longest stretch of recess in August.

What are state and district work periods?

While Congress is in recess, members still have work. In fact, these periods are also known as “in district work periods” because they are expected to be in their respective district working. They travel to the state (Senators) or district (House Representatives) they represent to hear from their constituents and work with their community. 

This work includes constituent services, hosting town halls, working with other local elected officials and community leaders, and listening to the public to find better ways to provide for their community. Work periods are designed to make elected officials accessible to the public they represent and are a key way that they learn about the issues of most concern to their constituents to know how to best advocate for their districts or state when they are back in session.

They may also be seen attending events such as parades and other community celebrations either in an official capacity as an elected official representing their office and making services available at public events, or in an unofficial capacity as a candidate running for re-election or another position. These events are great opportunities to introduce yourself, share your concerns, and discuss their policies and work in the Capitol.

How did work periods come about?

Until about the 1930s, being a Senator or House Representative was not a full-time job. Many members of Congress would work in D.C. for half of the year, and head home for the other half, returning to their ‘normal’ job. As America and the world became more complex, so did the work in Congress. Due to events like the Great Depression and World Wars I and II, congressional work quickly became much more complicated, therefore requiring much more time and effort from members of Congress. As the years went on, congressional sessions grew longer, leading to the longest Senate session in our country’s history in 1963: from January all the way to December.

Before Congress’ summer recess existed, members were working later into the year with either a brief break or no break at all; however, as the congressional workload increased, lawmakers began to burnout and were making “unsound and unwise legislation”. Vice President John Nance Garner (1933-1941) famously said that “no good legislation ever comes out of Washington after June”. While the world continued to modernize at an increasingly rapid rate, Congress was falling behind, becoming disorganized and unable to keep up with the work required of them.

Eventually, Congress knew things needed to change, so, in 1945, they created the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. The staff director of the committee, George Galloway, stated that “[Congress’] calendars and committees became increasingly congested, its councils confused, and its members bewildered and harassed by multiplying technical problems and local pressures”. The next year, Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. This resulted in a number of changes to streamline Congressional Activities and support members of Congress’ workloads. Although the Act solved some of the issues Congress members were facing, they were still overworked with no real breaks. Over twenty years later, a new generation of lawmakers passed the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 to amend the 1946 Act, which officially instituted a recess starting in August.

Is summer the only time that work periods usually happen?

While the summer recess in August is the longest and most consistent work period, Congress also has shorter breaks throughout the year, some just a few days with others lasting a couple weeks.

In odd-numbered years following a major election year, new members of Congress are sworn in early in January. The new Congress, both Senate and House, usually begins immediately following the swearing in ceremonies. In addition to the August recess, Congressional members typically have an extended recess in the spring and then adjourn in mid-December. Schedules in even-numbered years are slightly less predictable due to Congressional members campaigning for re-election. 

Each year the congressional schedule is a little different. There are calendars for both the House and the Senate listed on the official congressional website that you can view to see exactly when your elected officials will return to their home states and districts.

What does this mean for you?

While elected officials are back in their states and districts during the work period, they are more available to their constituents – that means you! 

This is a crucial time to meet with your representatives by attending town hall meetings and public forums, visiting their in-state or in-district offices, or even just calling or emailing. Work periods are the best time to engage with your representatives as they are back home and ready to meet with their constituents. Remember, you voted them in and they are working to represent you, so your opinion matters. Even if you didn’t vote for them, let them know you are a voter and what issues you care about.

Find the contact information for your Senator and House Representative using our elected officials look up tool, and make sure they hear your and your community’s thoughts on their work!

Protip: Because elected officials want to be re-elected, they often care more about making active voters happy than those who sit out of elections and with public voting records they can see if you are an active voter. It’s one of the many reasons to vote, so make your voice heard!

Published August 9, 2023