Heard on the Hill

Heat and Harmonicas: A Brief History of House Recesses

How August recess came to be

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., leaves the Capitol after the last vote of the week in September 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As a former speaker of the House once said: “No good legislation comes out of Washington after June.”

Members and staffers, especially in this tough election year, have been eager to get back to their districts and take a break from the day-to-day grind in the Capitol.

But midterms and partisan battles are not what Speaker John Nance Garner was referring to. When he first came to Congress in the early 1900s, there was no air conditioning in the Capitol.

Hot air, mouth organs and the 20th Amendment — that’s the history of August recess.

When the House took its first official recess in 1800, it was only six days in December, according to the House Historian office’s record of session dates. But that’s not to say members were working their legislation-penning fingers to the bone. The 6th Congress was adjourned from May to November, so August wasn’t a working period to begin with.

[Flashback Friday: Recess Cancellations]

Part of the adjournment had to do with the swamp land that is D.C. What was known as “manufactured weather” arrived in the House of Representatives’ chamber in 1928, after lawmakers took a stance, according to the historian’s office.

Members claimed that about 200 colleagues had died in office over the last 35 years and that the poor air quality in the chamber had something to do with it. Like most complaints in Congress, a study was commissioned.

The study called for air conditioning in the chamber, and within months it was installed.

“The House announced that the system collected 500 pounds of dust and dirt in its first three months. That heap of pollution confirmed in many minds that air conditioning was the healthy way to go,” according to the historian’s office.

The Senate then followed the other chamber’s lead. Members, staffers and reporters can now attest that the chambers are usually the coolest spots in the Capitol — sometimes a little too cool in the summer months for women dressed for the weather.

With the fainting threat gone, summer became fair game for lawmaking. But while air conditioning helped Congress stick around in D.C. comfortably, it wasn’t the only factor that led to longer working years.  

Historians attribute that move to the economic collapse and global conflict in the 1930s. 

And that same decade, the 20th Amendment moved the first day of congressional sessions up to Jan. 3. 

Lawmakers since then have greeted recess with cheers. 

When the break rolled around in August 1955, members of the House, led by Percy Priest of Tennessee, literally broke out into song.

“Let the Rest of the World Go By” rang through the halls of the Capitol until then-Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas called the House to order, according to the historian’s office. The House recessed again, and Louis Rabaut of Michigan urged the chamber to start signing again. Frank Chelf of Kentucky broke out his harmonica to play along.

While members and staffers will celebrate the House breaking for August recess this week, it’s safe to guess that no members will be taking out their harmonicas.

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