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How the Presidential Race Threatens the 2016 August Recess

Could scheduling of the 2016 conventions mean a shorter August recess? (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The first voting is almost a full year away, and already the presidential campaign is upsetting the regular rhythms of Congress.  

Members with national ambitions regularly complicate their colleagues’ lives by deciding their current jobs must take a back seat to their nascent campaigns. But that process is starting especially early this time: Florida’s Marco Rubio is denying Senate Republicans some potentially pivotal votes on the energy bill so he can spend this week fundraising in California, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul skipped this month's retreat — where the GOP was hoping to come up with a unified Senate and House agenda for the year.  

For the entire congressional community, however, there’s a more significant — and unprecedented — disruption in the works.  

Last week, Democrats announced their 2016 convention would be held the final week of July, starting just four days after the Republicans finish their nominating convention. So there’s no chance a quorum will be available in either the House or Senate between July 15 (the Friday before the GOP gathering opens in Cleveland) and Aug. 1. That’s the Monday after the Democrats decamp from a city not yet announced. It’s also when, under normal circumstances, the congressional summer break would be getting underway.  

The national political timetable, in other words, has the potential to trample on what’s almost always one of the most frenetic periods of legislating, even during a do-little election year. And the easiest way to prevent that from happening is to mess with the sanctity of the August recess — which would risk infuriating not only lawmakers’ families but also legions of their aides, the Hill support staff and the K Street contingent.  

The congressional calendar is under the control of the majority parties, and neither side’s leadership has offered any signals about how they’ll set the schedule for the summer after next. But there seem to be only three options. Members could be dismissed after just two weeks in session during July and told they need not return until Sept. 6, the day after Labor Day — yielding a 2016 summer hiatus of more than seven weeks. Members could be told to come back after the conventions and work for the first two weeks of August. Or they could get recalled before the end of August, to make up for the lost time.  

The people in the congressional community who aren’t going to the conventions would clearly be happy with the first option; it would mean an unprecedentedly long stretch for catching up on reading, hanging out with friends at the beach and working on the House or Senate campaigns that matter most to them. (In the previous two presidential years, the conventions bracketed Labor Day and were the final two weeks of the summer recess.)  

But limiting the down-time after the conventions will be given serious consideration, because GOP leaders are surely wary of turning out the lights at the Capitol for more than 50 consecutive days. Doing so would do more than counteract one of the main messages the party aspires to run on next year. That's that the new Republican majority’s serious stewardship of Congress merits being rewarded with total control of the government. Such a long break also would make it even more difficult than usual to keep up the pace of work on routine business — principally the appropriations bills, which generally need to win initial House and Senate passage in summer to stand a chance of enactment by the start of the new fiscal year in October.  

Whatever decision the leaders make, next year looks to deviate from an August recess standard in place for a generation. The last time the break was shorter than four weeks (or longer than five) was 1994, when the Democrats held members in town into the final full week of August in hope of advancing their election-year agenda — and then picked up where they’d left off just three weeks later.  

This Hill calendar challenge is because the conventions are set for earlier in the year than at any time in a quarter-century. Both parties have concluded a gathering in July solves two problems : It means a more compact primary season, and therefore a shorter possible period for internal party warfare. And it takes better advantage of campaign finance law, which says only the formally nominated candidate may spend funds earmarked for the general election campaign.  

Once the GOP decided on the week of July 18, the Democrats (who customarily get the last-word advantage awarded the party of the incumbent president) had little choice but to pick the following week, because the week of Aug. 1 concludes with the opening of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  

By that time, it won’t make much difference how much work a candidate missed at the Capitol the previous year, even if one of them ends up on the ticket.  

No one made much of the fact that Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois missed 53 percent of the roll calls during the two years before winning the presidency. His 2008 GOP opponent, Sen. John McCain, secured re-election in Arizona two years later without much complaint about his absenteeism rate of 64 percent during that same 110th Congress. If she runs in 2016, few will mention that as a New York senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton skipped a quarter of the recorded votes during her first national campaign in 2007 and 2008. And the two House Republicans who ran for president in 2012, Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas, have left Congress for reasons that don’t have much to do with the fact that each missed about one-third of the floor votes in the year before the Iowa caucuses.  

Republicans who skimp on their 2015 Senate duties to run for president, in other words, aren’t likely to cause as much of a stir as the uncertainty about the 2016 August recess.  

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