Behind-the-Scenes of Congress When It Is in Recess

Breaks in the Proceedings Can Be Short or Long

Capitol Hill Against Sky
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A recess of the U.S. Congress or the Senate is a temporary break in proceedings. It can be within the same day, overnight, or for a weekend or period of days. It is done instead of an adjournment, which is a more formal close of proceedings. An adjournment for more than three days requires approval by both the House and the Senate, according to the Constitution, while recesses do not have such restrictions.

Congressional Recesses

A Congressional session runs for one year, from January 3 to sometime in December. But Congress does not meet each and every business day of the year. When Congress has recessed, business has been put "on hold."

For example, Congress often holds business sessions only on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so that legislators can visit their constituents over a long weekend that includes a work day. At such times, Congress has not adjourned but is, instead, recessed. Congress also recesses the week of a federal holiday. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 stipulated a 30-day recess each August, except in time of war.

Representatives and Senators use recess periods in many ways. Often, they are hard at work during a recess, studying legislation, attending meetings and hearings, meeting with interest groups, raising campaign funds, and visiting their district. They are not required to stay in Washington, DC, during a recess and may take the opportunity to return to their districts.

During longer recesses, they may log some actual vacation time.

Some are dissatisfied with the short work week typical of Congress, where many are only in town for three days of the week. There have been suggestions to impose a five-day workweek and give one week out of four off to visit their district.

Recess Appointments

During a recess, a President can execute a pocket-veto or make recess appointments. This ability became a bone of contention during the 2007-2008 session. Democrats controlled the Senate and they wanted to prevent President George W. Bush from making recess appointments at the end of his term of office. Their tactic was to have pro forma sessions every three days, so they were never in recess long enough for him to exercise his recess appointment power.

This tactic then was used by the House of Representatives in 2011. This time, it was the Republicans in the majority who used pro forma sessions to stay in session and prevent the Senate from adjourning for more than three days (as is provided in the Constitution). President Barack Obama was prevented from approving recess appointments. The case went to the Supreme Court when President Obama appointed three members of the National Labor Relations Board in January 2012 despite these pro forma sessions held every few days. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that this was not allowed. They said that the Senate is in session when it says it's in session. Four of the justices would have restricted recess appointment powers only during the period between the end of a yearly session and the beginning of the next one.