The Speaker's Lobby: Cruel Summer

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

08 August 2010

School's out for summer. School's out with fever. School's out completely. - "School's Out" Alice Cooper, 1972

It's a cruel, cruel summer. - "Cruel Summer" Bananarama, 1983

It was a wistful time on the House side of Capitol Hill. Staffers cruised into the office around 11 am, shod in flip-flops and Nantucket Reds. Golf clubs waited in the corner for House aides to disappear for a long "lunch."

GAO reports? Constituent mail? The House was just launching an almost-unprecedented, six-week recess. About the only things that mattered any more were "gym, tan, laundry."

What made it even more delicious was that the Senate remained in session an extra week, plodding through votes and debate on the Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan. House staffers delighted in schadenfreude over the fate of their Senate colleagues.

But the Senate may have gotten the last laugh.

Only on Capitol Hill can one's inner-DJ switch from streaming Alice Cooper's "School's Out" in your head and then spin "Cruel Summer" by Bananarama.

The House thought it was coming back September 14. But last week, Senate Democrats cracked a Republican-led filibuster to pass a $26 billion state aid bill to help avert the layoffs of 140,000 teachers.

And the House wasn't around to take up the measure and send it to President Obama for his signature.

"It is going to be very difficult for the House to be out for five weeks," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) after putting the bill on a glide path to passage.

This August, most people in Washington only monitored their Twitter feed to see if the Redskins' Albert Haynesworth completed his conditioning test. But it was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) who was the bearer of bad news last Wednesday when she Tweeted she was calling the House back to session this week to tackle the state assistance legislation.

That prompted Roll Call's Jackie Kucinich to post this prescient note on Facebook:

"Today is sponsored by the letters W, T and F," wrote Kucinich.

Summoning the House back to session is not an easy task. Lawmakers and staff are spread all over the country if not the world. Vacations. Congressional delegation trips (known in Capitolese as CODELS). Surgeries. You name it.

In fact, Congress has only been recalled to Washington twice in the past five years in the middle of a major recess. In 2005, a handful of lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill shortly after Hurricane Katrina to approve emergency relief funds. But that wasn't controversial.

What was more contentious was an emergency session called by the Republican leadership in March of that year. The GOP brass asked lawmakers to come back to Capitol Hill on Palm Sunday to vote on a bill that would block the decision of a Florida judge to allow the removal of a feeding tube that was sustaining Terri Schiavo.

Schiavo suffered severe brain damage and had been in a vegetative state for years before the court order.

"Every hour is important to Terri Schiavo," said then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) who led the effort.

The House began the debate on Palm Sunday, but was barred from voting on the issue until it became Monday. The GOP gaveled the vote closed at 12:45 am, approving the Schiavo measure 203 to 58. 174 members of the House never even made it back to vote in the hastily-called special session.

Tuesday's meeting will be a little different. But expect some absences. Lawmakers who have easy commutes to Washington are bound to be here. But others face a more daunting trek. Especially when they may be flying in from overseas.

"I'm one of the lucky ones," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who lives just across the District of Columbia border in Kensington, MD. "With light traffic, we can (travel to the Capitol) in about 35 minutes. Maybe 40."

Van Hollen says he usually drives but sometimes hops the Metro.

Another "close-in" Congressman is Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA). He lives in Fairfax County, VA, a prominent Washington suburb.

"It's obviously less disruptive for me," said Connolly, who noted that it takes him about 35 minutes to drive in.

But Connolly added that he had to cancel various public meetings scheduled for Tuesday.

"We'll have to rearrange those," he said.

Still, Connolly said that the speaker's decision to recall the House shocked him.

"I was somewhat taken aback because it was unexpected," Connolly admitted.

Ironically, the House was originally scheduled to be in session this week. But the Democratic leadership cancelled that plan in June. Some groused that the House wouldn't have to go through such extraordinary machinations had the Democratic leadership just held lawmakers in town for the week. But Connolly says that approach would have garnered criticism too. Predicting what the Senate may do is a black art. And there's a good chance the Senate wouldn't have approved the bill had the House just hung around.

"Gambling on whether the Senate will or will not act is a roll of the dice," Connolly said.

If Van Hollen and Connolly enjoy some of the shortest commutes into Washington, Del. Kilili Sablan (I-MP) has the worst. Sablan is the non-voting delegate to Congress from the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. Commonwealth in the Pacific Ocean. Sablan can vote on amendments and some other procedural measures. But he and the other five non-voting delegates to the House won't be allowed to vote on this package because of the package is structured.

"I would love to be there with my colleagues," said Sablan when he called me at 3:40 in the morning Friday from Saipan (it was 1:40 Thursday afternoon in Washington). "But it takes a whole day for me to get there and just to get back. For only for a few hours."

Sablan estimates a one-way commute to Washington covers roughly 8,000 miles. He usually flies from Saipan to Tokyo. He then boards a Northwest jet to Minneapolis-St. Paul before his final leg to Washington.

"If I had a vote, yes, I'd be there," Sablan said. "And if I thought (the Northern Mariana Islands) were being left out in this bill, I'd be there."

Another lawmaker who faces a vicious commute who will be in Washington this week is Rep. Charles Djou (R-HI). But the Congressional schedule is already forcing Djou to log some serious airtime.

For instance, when the House adjourned at the end of July, Djou flew back to Honolulu. But not after facing a three-hour delay flying out of Washington. Which made Djou miss his connection in Chicago.

"If I'm not out of DC by 12 noon, I miss all of my connections," Djou said.

So even though the House adjourned on Friday, July 30, Djou never made it back to Hawaii until Sunday.

But he had to return to Washington last Thursday for a meeting with the Micronesian Ambassador to the U.S. Djou arranged that sit-down when the House was originally slated to be in session last week. So then Djou planned to head back to Hawaii a second time. Until the speaker's decision to recall the House meant he would have to make yet another trip to Washington this week. That's three, 24-hour trips spread out over ten days.

"I'm racking up the points," Djou said, of the some 30,000 miles he will log in the air at the end of this odyssey. "I am perpetually tired."

Djou knew the commute to Washington would be rough for him when he won a special election to Congress a few months ago. But he says nothing could prepare him for this.

"As exhausting as I thought it would be, this is worse," Djou said.

Plus, extra time in Washington could cost Djou precious time on the ground in Hawaii. Djou won the May special election with less than 40 percent of the vote in a three-way contest. The district is largely Democratic. And Democrats believe Djou's seat is ripe for a pick-up this fall in a conventional, two-way race.

Many lawmakers are having to rearrange events scheduled back in their districts. Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) criticized Democrats for what he called "mismanagement."

"It disrupts the opportunity to speak," McCarthy said. "Now you've finally been able to schedule something and then you have to cancel it."

Just before the speaker announced the House would return to session, the office of Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) initiated a robocall announcing a town hall meeting in Franconia Township, PA, for Tuesday. But the next day, Congress entered the "blackout" period where lawmakers are banned from any mass, unsolicited communication with their constituents. In other words, Dent's office couldn't just trigger another robocall to cancel the meeting or explain why the Congressman won't be there.

Still, the town session will go on. But with Dent joining via teleconference from Washington.

"Some people will know he needs to be down here," said Dent spokesman Collin Long.

Travel is a way of life for lawmakers. This is a touch-and-go. Most of those who parachute into Washington on Tuesday will linger only a few hours. It brings to mind what Jack Kerouac wrote in his iconic novel "On the Road."

"Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life."

The road is life for Members of Congress. School's never really out. Especially during a cruel summer.

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

-The Speaker's Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.