Congress's Recess: 31 Flavors, And Then Someby Anne Schroeder Mullins
September 9, 2009
For the first time since launching her political career, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) went completely “off the grid” during the August recess when she arrived in a Costa Rican rain forest for a six-day getaway.
Landrieu and her family stayed in a remote eco-lodge that ran on solar and hydropower. Aside from her staff, few knew her exact whereabouts.
“We were visited every morning by monkeys. We saw all sorts of wildlife. We rappelled waterfalls. We rode horses on the beach and trekked through the rain forest,” Landrieu recalled.
“I didn’t intend for this to be information I could bring back to the energy committee on how it really feels to be off the grid,” but it was, she added.
Although members of Congress regularly jet off to exotic hot spots, Landrieu’s long-planned trip with her husband and two kids was relatively unique.
No advocacy group underwrote it, and the military didn’t provide transport. The senator didn’t pay a visit to Costa Rica’s secretary of finance or pop in to see the ambassador.
It was simply an old-fashioned family vacation, one that helped the senator — like so many parents — balance the priorities of children and work and recharge her batteries before the hectic fall legislative session gets under way.
It was also a rarity in this politically overcharged summer of 2009.
Although August is traditionally the month lawmakers use to slip away to soothing shores or airy mountains, the 24/7 news cycle, infinite communication streams and far-reaching ramifications of the issues before them — health care reform, trillion-dollar deficits, a still-rickety economy — have made vacations like Landrieu’s particularly tough to pull off this year.
Instead, many lawmakers opted for “staycations,” spending the bulk of their time back in their home states, checking in with constituents who have grown increasingly engaged — or enraged — with the happenings in Washington.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) crammed 19 health care listening sessions with his constituents into his August “recess.”
In many cases, the best lawmakers could do was squeeze in a little R & R not too far from their BlackBerrys.
For example, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, the Democrats’ point man on health care reform, was able to escape for a day or two of hiking but spent the lion’s share of his recess crisscrossing Montana to meet with voters.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the Senate Budget Committee chairman, packed 35 events into the recess — 22 on health care alone — but made time for a family reunion and his niece’s wedding.
And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) spent a week with his family at home in the city before he hit the road to meet constituents throughout his state.
Members of Congress say toned-down vacations are a function of the jam-packed legislative agenda. “There hasn’t been time for a full night’s sleep, let alone a vacation,” said freshman Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).
But public perception surely played a role, as well. “You’re in the middle of the worst recession in 30 years,” said Republican public image consultant Brian Kirwin. “If you’re going on vacation, you’re going to look pretty bad.”
Beyond the economy, Kirwin said, the seriousness of the legislative calendar requires some deference.
“We’re in the middle of health care; if you’re not holding town meetings and not talking to [your constituents] and using August to get out of town, that’s going to hurt you,” Kirwin continued. “This is definitely an August to be in town talking to your voters and not jet setting.”
Democratic strategist Steve McMahon agreed.
“Holding town hall meetings in August might not seem like much of a vacation, but it’s a really smart thing do,” he said.
“The only thing worse than heading home and having voters yell at you at town meetings is heading for an exotic vacation spot and having voters see you on television enjoying yourself — particularly if taxpayers are paying for the trip.”
But chatting about health care instead of taking a vacation may not be sound personal policy, said Marty Makary, a physician and professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University.
“A high-profile person is already at the highest risk of chronic exhaustion and depression, and forgone vacation time often tips people into full-blown burnout,” Makary said. “Skipping vacation is likely to worsen depression, mood swings and emotional detachment on the job.”
Still, former Democratic Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, who represented Colorado in the House for 24 years, said lawmakers can find some silver linings amid the limitations.
“I always thought August break was a total vacation because I didn’t have to get on a plane for a whole month,” she said. “Also, with the economy down, ‘staycations’ are the new thing, ... so my guess is, members are getting in time for golf, tennis or whatever they like to do while at home.”
For Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), that meant making some time with her small children.
She spent the month traveling around her state on official business. However, sometimes that works out well for families: She brought along her sons, Henry, 1, and Theo, 5, when she was due to visit a rail museum in the western part of the Empire State.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) attended almost every day of the Minnesota State Fair, in all its Kool-Aid-injected-pickle-on-a-stick glory. He even had his own meet-and-greet station — right around the corner from the all-you-can-drink milk booth.
Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson spent his August “on a staycation here in beautiful Nebraska, talking to hundreds of constituents about health care,” according to his spokesman.
Some other members used their time off to check out other parts of the country.
Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) spent two days at the American Legion National Convention in Kentucky, where he was a highlighted speaker.
After spending the first week of recess with his family, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) set off on a several-week trip across the country to recruit candidates for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
And Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) was able to enjoy a weekend getaway to South Bend, Ind., to attend the University of Notre Dame’s first football game.
That’s not to say that the overseas “working” tour — with a generous mix of time off between official meetings — is a thing of the past.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), for example, led a group of 25 Republicans on a congressional delegation to Israel during the recess. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) took a large group of Democrats there as well.
“I spent a week traveling Israel with some of my colleagues as well as my wife, Polly,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “There were many memorable moments for us; meetings with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and President [Shimon] Peres, visiting the Old City in Jerusalem and Sea of Galilee.”
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) also got to travel abroad, flying to South Korea, where he received an honorary doctorate.
Asked about the local flavors, he raved about the food. “We were served traditional Korean food, consisting of many delicacies and special sauces. Fish were fresh and readily available: broiled eel, fresh octopus, codfish,” he said.
Republican Rep. Mark Kirk bypassed a vacation this year because of his laborious Illinois Senate campaign. Still, he believes that many lawmakers might be doing a little more relaxing than they are willing to own up to.
“I think most of them won’t admit they’re on vacation,” he said with a laugh.