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What the 2016 Calendar Says About Congress

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agree on at least one thing: a long August recess. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Decades of waiting on the arrival of the annual congressional calendar and then poring over the details affords Hill long-timers a nuanced appreciation of the myriad political calculations and logistical limitations that go in to setting the Capitol’s timetable for an entire year.  

Inside the stretches of legislating followed by the bursts of recess, the schedules for 2016  announced this week by the Republican top brass in the House and Senate offer some quirky rhythms and unexpected sequences that give insight into the hectic election year ahead. Here are five messages delivered by the new diary. Republicans aren’t anxious . In some election years, the majority sets a death-march timetable in hopes of showing voters just how doggedly lawmakers are working on the nation’s problems. Other times, Hill bosses adopt an opposing theory: The electorate isn’t expecting much from Congress, so the rank and file should be given as much time as possible to sell their singular worth in a broken institution.  

The 2016 document looks like it was drawn with the latter idea in mind — although not as emphatically as in the last presidential year. House members are set for votes on just 95 days before being sent home to campaign full-time, 10 more days than in the comparable period before Election Day 2012. The Senate’s going to be in session for 26 weeks before the election, two more weeks than when President Barack Obama was seeking his second term.  

GOP leaders have an escape hatch if they conclude the electorate is demanding more action on the Hill: They can delay the scheduled departures of Sept. 30 in the House and a week later in the Senate. (Before 2012, when Congress actually went home weeks earlier than planned, the walk-off-the-floor days were postponed in each of the previous three presidential years.)  

No shutdown next year. Still, an expectation of fiscal sanity is built into a calendar encouraging House members, at least, to book flights away from Washington on the final day of the fiscal year.  

By setting that de facto budget deadline, top Republicans are either presuming — or hoping to engineer — the following scenario: The recent relaxation of the discretionary spending caps will make the fiscal 2017 appropriations process as smooth as it’s been in a long time. And, even if all the spending decisions don't get done by the Oct. 1 deadline, even the most combative conservatives will get behind a stopgap continuing resolution without any of their customary hostage-taking over policy riders. That’s because to do otherwise would threaten not only continued government operations, just weeks before the election, but also members’ own campaign schedules.  

One-party control has limits. Republicans, in charge of both halves of Congress for the first time in eight years, were able get past their House leadership melodrama and Senate squabbling long enough to settle on their calendars earlier in the fall than at any time in recent memory. But they couldn’t find bicameral agreement on when legislating should happen and when the breaks should be.  

In the end, both chambers will both be open for business only half the year. The House will have the Capitol to itself in three other weeks (including the first week of January) and the Senate will be the only game in town for five weeks. House members are taking two weeks for spring break, senators just one. The House is out for a week at Independence Day, the Senate for only a long weekend.  

Summer is sacrosanct. Because the parties want their presidential candidates nominated as soon as practical (mainly so they can start using donations earmarked for the fall campaign), the conventions will be earlier than at any time in a quarter-century. The Republicans will meet the third week in July and the Democrats the week after, staking claim to what’s normally among the most fevered fortnights of the legislative year.  

Members could have been told they’d have to return to the Hill at the start of August, or before Labor Day, to make up for the lost time. Both tough-love options were ignored in favor of the longest summer recess in at least three decades.  

Those who don’t have to be with the GOP in Cleveland or the Democrats in Philadelphia get 52 consecutive days — 14 percent of the year — to catch up on reading, raise money for the fall, vacation with family, visit with constituents or film campaign spots. (In the previous four convention years, such breaks have lasted between four weeks and six weeks.)  

Lame ducks are here to stay. There were only eight post-election meetings in the first four decades following World War II, because in those days the expectation was all routine lawmaking would get done by one Congress before voters were asked to choose the next one.  

One way of marking the intensifying paralysis is that Congress has met in every even-numbered November and December since 1998, even though those sessions were almost never arranged with more than a few weeks’ notice. The custom of officially turning a blind eye to the inevitable has now ended: The 10th consecutive lame duck is already set, the third straight time the leadership has faced up to the Hill’s procrastinating ways a year in advance.  

Whether they’ll be returning in 2017 or not, current lawmakers are expected back six days after Election Day and are committed to legislating during four of the following five weeks. (Thanksgiving week will be the exception.) The official targeted adjournment of the 114th Congress is not until nine days before Christmas.

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