Threats to cancel August recesses in Congress are almost as traditional as the August recesses themselves. Last year, Mitch McConnell managed to shorten it a bit while trying to pass an ObamaCare repeal bill, which flopped despite the extra time. This year, though, they have extra incentive to cancel the entire vacation and focus on an agenda slowed down by Democratic obstruction:
Senate Republicans on Wednesday were in intense discussions about canceling the August recess, a move that could cripple vulnerable Democrats running for re-election in red states.
With President Trump’s encouragement, Republicans are threatening to keep the Senate open for an extended summer session to process agenda items delayed by Democratic obstruction. But the political benefits of denying incumbent Democrats valuable time on the campaign trail is also factor in the Republicans’ deliberations, and why they appear more willing that usual to give up a treasured annual vacation.
“It most certainly has been an item that’s discussed,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., told the Washington Examiner. “There’s no way around it. If they’re not able to go home at a time in which they’re campaigning, it’s more of a challenge for them.”
Ostensibly, the reason for canceling the August recess will be to move Donald Trump’s nominations through the Senate. The House can take a vacation if it likes, although it might need to stick around to pass some appropriations bills in order to beat the September 30th deadline. Most of the potential action in August will be in the upper chamber, though, especially with Mike Pompeo promising to fill hundreds of open slots at the State Department, many of whom will need Senate confirmation.
Politically, Republicans would likely benefit from tying up Democratic incumbents from red states from campaigning. But will that really work out that way? Senators do not have to show up for every vote, although they should. All Mitch McConnell can demand is a quorum, and ten missing Democrats won’t deny him that. That may turn out to be more counterproductive than helpful to Trump’s appointees, since a few of them only got confirmed by winning red-state Dem votes — Pompeo himself, for one, and Gina Haspel’s upcoming confirmation to replace Pompeo at CIA. The ten or so red-state Democrats would be essentially relieved from having to cast a vote on these nominees, taking away a potential campaign argument from their GOP opponents.
The real point of this move, and the reason this baldly partisan argument is being made in public, is to force Democrats into agreeing to shorten debate time on presidential nominations. McConnell doesn’t want to change the 30-hour rule unilaterally despite getting a recommendation from the Rules Committee last month to bring it down to eight hours. Instead, he’s apparently hoping to get them to play ball by threatening the August recess first.
Will it work? Probably not. Democrats might agree to shorten debate on some nominees, but they want to play hardball on the most significant. They might be willing to call the GOP bluff on the August recess just to make that point, and to force McConnell into a unilateral rules change that might help fire up their own base. But as I wrote last year, the August recess should get jettisoned for other reasons, so its loss — if it does get lost — is hardly worth lamenting:
Few members of either chamber fully move to Washington any longer, and travel home regularly over the long weekends of the congressional schedule. In election years, House and Senate incumbents need to campaign at home, but even then incumbents have such overwhelming advantages over challengers that the carve-out is difficult to justify. In off years, there are few such pressures. Members of Congress have become increasingly reluctant to hold town-hall meetings with constituents, precisely because of blowback from both parties’ efforts to reform health care, so increasingly there is no constituent-oriented reason for the break.
There seems to be little reason for the August recess except as an escape, and the timing of it is particularly questionable. Every year, Congress has to pass a budget, an enormously complicated set of negotiations between 535 elected officials on Capitol Hill and the president at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Does it make sense to have a five-week gap in that process within a month of the deadline? …
In these populist times, voters want Congress to put their priorities ahead of members’ need for relaxation or campaigning, and most of them don’t get five weeks of vacation all year, let alone all at once. Congress should work at least as hard as the constituents that send them to Washington. If they want time off, let them earn it by getting their jobs done more efficiently and effectively.
And for that, McConnell should pursue the rule change and jettison most of the unnecessary 30 hours of debate on each nominee when everyone already knows how they’ll vote. That’s the real solution at hand to the obstructionism. And then cancel August recesses for good.