The Speaker’s Lobby: Recess

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

26 August 2009

The U.S. Capitol pulsates when Congress is in session. To the uninitiated, it’s a cyclone. The pace churns with such velocity that many struggle to keep up.

Frenetic schedulers apologize to scores of constituents and lobbyists, cooling their heels in Congressional offices because, well, the Congressman simply isn’t in. He could be stuck on the floor. Or maybe he’s at that Armed Services subcommittee hearing. Or he’s running late from that state delegation breakfast over in the Dirksen building.

They all lament that the Congressman isn’t cloned. Or they wish they could just beam the representative around from place to place like they do on Star Trek.

Press secretaries hustle to get their boss to a live CNBC hit in the Cannon Rotunda at 4:21. And then to a meeting in the Majority Leader’s office. They volunteer their combs to the boss tame a few stray hairs and brief him as they walk.

The aides are about to explode. Dozens of emails and phone calls go unreturned. It’s 4:45 and no one’s gotten lunch.

The lawmakers themselves are frazzled. They toggle back and forth on issues ranging from health care to Afghanistan to the CIA to meeting a Girl Scout Troup from the district.

Meantime in the Senate, personal aides hustle alongside their bosses as they make the brisk walk from the Russell building to the Capitol. They can barely keep up as the senator barks an order to one who types feverishly on his BlackBerry. The other one frantically dials his cell phone.

Back in the office, aides serve as corner men in a prize fight. The boss comes in after a round at the Judiciary Committee, bloodied and beaten. The aides carry parliamentary Q-tips behind their ears, ready to apply Vaseline and ice to the lawmaker’s cuts. Then the bell rings. There’s a vote on the floor. They arm the lawmaker with some more talking points, tighten his gloves and send him back out to fight in the next round.

None of that is going on this week on Capitol Hill. Or next. Or has gone on the previous three weeks. Congressional aides share something in common with first graders. The most hallowed word in their respective lexicons is recess. And Congress is on recess right now.

The Congressional recess is an oasis in the middle of a hot, sandy legislative desert. The mania of days on Capitol Hill take their toll. But recess is just ahead. They can see the palm trees.

“I can’t wait for recess,” is a common refrain.

During school recess, kids swing from the monkey bars, climb the slide and spin on the merry-go-round. When Congress is in recess, House and Senate aides do, too.

Two Congressional aides are spied leaving Rayburn around lunchtime on Friday. They sport shorts and have Prince tennis rackets strapped to their backs.

Another aide arrives on Capitol Hill around midday. After finishing a round of shopping at Tyson’s Corner Mall.

I discover two male aides in a Congressional office in the Rayburn building practicing their putting game. They’ve flipped small paper cups on their sides and positioned them on the carpet to serve as holes.

The staff of another Congressman engages in a game of Frisbee. Inside the office.

Two aides inside one Longworth office are overheard singing along (loudly) to a Dave Matthews song playing on the radio.

What’s fabulous is walking into a Congressional offices when aides are engaged in these digressions. It’s priceless to see them get all serious for a few moments and act like they were working when you actually swing by on business.

“What did we do on recess before the internet?” grouses one aide. “I’ve been on Facebook all day. Otherwise, I’d be bored.”

At lunch, one aide brags about how she completed all of her Christmas shopping. Online.

Others plow through books.

“I never have any time to read when we’re in session,” she says.

Almost everyone has ditched the suits and heels. The recess de rigueur is jeans, shorts, tennis shoes and flip-flops.

That is, for those who are even on Capitol Hill.

During the recess, many of the cavernous halls of the House office buildings stand vacant. For this is when aides and lawmakers go on vacation. A cop slumps near an obscure entrance near an entrance to the Rayburn garage. It’s mid-morning. Yet he tells me I’m only the third person to walk by all day.

Some Congressional offices use the time for staff retreats or training.

A handmade sign is affixed to the floor of the Longworth office of Rep. John Olver (D-MA).

“The Washington, DC office of Congressman John Olver (MA-01) at 1111 Longworth HOB will be CLOSED ALL DAY on Tuesday August 25, 2009,” the sign reads. It then directs people to contact Olver’s office in Holyoke, MA.

The aides and lawmakers may be on recess. But it’s also a time to work on Capitol Hill’s infrastructure. The Longworth Cafeteria is shuttered for a project. Tables, chairs and serving trays are stacked up as workers toil there. Even the gigantic clock on the wall is stopped at 12:41.

Meantime, the House chamber is closed. The dais and paintings of George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette are cloaked in Tyvek protective coverings while workers install new seats in the public viewing galleries.

The House is also upgrading the “scoreboard” on the side of the chamber to a Technicolor version. The clock counts down as the scoreboard reads 178 yeas, 256 nays and six present. Only now, the yeas are green, the nays appear in red and the six in amber. Before, the entire board was in black and white.

“Motion to Test the EVS” the scoreboard reads, a reference to the House’s electronic voting system. And if the vote on the motion is interpreted correctly, all 178 Republicans favored testing the system. All Democrats were opposed. Meantime, the six delegates to Congress all voted present.

Of course, this isn’t officially called recess. Lawmakers, ever-worried that constituents think they’re sloughing off on the public dime changed to the title years ago. It’s now known euphemistically as the “District Work Period.” The implication of course is that lawmakers are back in their districts, working.

Never mind that their aides are in Washington, playing golf in the Congressional office. Or that the lawmakers themselves might not even be in the district. That’s because they could be overseas on a Congressional trip, out raising money for candidates or, gasp, on vacation themselves with their families.

They’re human. They need a vacation too.

I don’t think anyone on Capitol Hill begrudges lawmakers or their staff a little R&R over the “District Work Period” or whatever you want to call it. That’s because frankly, when Congress is in session, these people work like dogs. Whether you believe it or not, the taxpayers certainly get their money’s worth when it comes to the effort and hours expended by the Capitol Hill faithful.

Toward the end of the day Monday, I go for coffee and bump into a few aides. I ask them how things have been.

“Slow!” says one.

The other spells it out

“S-L-O-W,” she says.

“I’m tired of recess. I don’t have anything to do all day,” she grumbles. “I’m ready to go back into session.”

That is until she’s beleaguered by a few weeks of 12 hour days. And then of course she’ll again start pining for another Congressional recess.

 - Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.