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Canceling the August recess won’t fix what’s wrong with the Senate

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 5, 2018
  • Published June 5, 2018

FILE PHOTO – The U.S. Capitol Building is lit at sunset in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

"Don't be fooled by the calendar," Canadian politician Charles Richards once said. "There are only as many days in the year as you make use of."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — and a great many others in Washington, D.C. — would do well to heed Mr. Richards' advice.

Sen. McConnell's decision to cancel most of this year's August Senate recess, announced Tuesday, was rolled out to the usual partisan rhetoric. In canceling the break, during which senators usually go home to meet with constituents, campaign and spend time with their families, Sen. McConnell blamed Democratic senators' "unprecedented" obstruction of President Donald Trump's nominees for a variety of positions.

The political games related to presidential nominees are regrettable, but they're hardly unprecedented: In 2016, for example, Sen. McConnell and his colleagues refused to hold hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland for more than nine months. The gambit was ultimately successful — Mr. Garland's nomination expired and Republicans seated President Trump's replacement appointee, Neil Gorsuch.

The scale of the breakdown of regular order in the Senate, however, has certainly accelerated. In a statement supporting the partial recess cancellation, Sen. Dan Sullivan pointed to the fact that Democrats have forced 100 cloture votes on nominees compared to 12 for former President Barack Obama's appointees by this point in his first term.

More to the point, however, canceling the recess doesn't fix the greater calendar issue in the Senate: Most times, despite being in session, the body has retreated to working de facto three-day weeks. With many members eager to get home from Washington at the end of the week, Sen. McConnell almost never calendars votes after Thursday afternoon or before Tuesday. The result is a long weekend that allows senators from the Lower 48 to get home Thursday night and spend Friday, Saturday, Sunday and part of Monday away from the capital. With a considerably longer commute, however, Alaska's senators don't benefit as much from the four-day weekends.

It's an issue that rankles Sen. Lisa Murkowski. "This suggestion that, quote, 'We need to stay here and do our work through August' — why aren't we staying here and doing our work on Monday and on Friday?" the senator said in a meeting last week with the Anchorage Daily News editorial board. "Look at the calendar again. You will not see a vote that's scheduled before 5:30 (p.m. Monday).Why? Because that's when everybody's planes come back in from Atlanta, and from Houston. So that they can have their three or perhaps four days in their district. Well, good on them, but the geography isn't equal."

Sen. Murkowski is right. There are eight weeks left before the August recess was scheduled to begin. If the Senate were to work each of the Mondays and Fridays between now and then, it would add up to an additional 16 days of work. Coincidentally, that's just more than the 15 working days added in the three weeks of recess that Sen. McConnell just canceled.

For his part, Sen. Sullivan supports the recess cancellation, but has said he feels the same way about the Senate workweek, and that he'd like to see actual work being done Monday through Friday.

Ironically, the long weekends that many U.S. senators are keen on may themselves be partly responsible for the obstructionist thinking on both sides of the political aisle. Several longtime senators — including former Sen. Ted Stevens — noted declines in comity between members of opposing parties once going home on the weekends became the norm instead of the exception. Because the senators weren't staying in Washington, D.C., during their downtime, they had fewer opportunities to get to know one another outside of the sharp-elbowed world of the Capitol Building. And when senators started seeing each other principally as members of their own team or the other rather than colleagues and even friends, bipartisanship — and the kind of fence-mending that can lead to smoother confirmations for appointees — took a hit.

The political drama over the August recess may well work out in Sen. McConnell's favor. Democrats are defending three times as many Senate seats as Republicans, and their desire to get out on the campaign trail may break the dam on confirming nominees. But that political win wouldn't fix the greater issues of heightened partisanship and the fact that the Senate is only working three full days per week.

With regular Americans working five days per week and often more than that, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect that our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., do the same.

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