“How shall we modernize Congress, and update the machinery of democracy?” asked Senator Gale McGee in 1965. His answer? An August recess! In fact, Gale McGee should be remembered as the champion of the summertime break.
From 1789 until the 1930s, Congress convened in December, stayed in session for five or six months, and then adjourned sine die. Occasionally, the demands of war kept Congress in session longer, but generally senators agreed with Vice President John Nance Garner who famously proclaimed, “No good legislation ever comes out of Washington after June.” By the 1950s, however, the schedule had changed. In 1956 Congress adjourned on July 27—marking the last time the Senate adjourned before the first of August.
Gale McGee was not the first senator to propose a summer break. In 1959 Margaret Chase Smith warned of the Senate’s increasing workload. It creates disorder, she complained, as well as “confused thinking, harmful emotions, destructive tempers, unsound and unwise legislation, and ill health with the very specter of death hanging over Members of Congress.” If that sounds dramatic, keep in mind that in the 1950s senators died in office at a rate of about two per year. Smith proposed an annual break from August to October, but the Senate ignored her words of caution.
By the early 1960s legislative sessions had crept well into autumn. In 1962 the Senate met from January to October with no recess. In 1963 it convened in January and adjourned in December with no break longer than a three-day weekend. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield complained that he no longer recognized his wife during daylight hours. “It is time to stop kidding ourselves,” Gale McGee exclaimed. It’s time to face the “facts of legislative life.”
Repeatedly, McGee called for a summer recess, and each time the idea split the Senate along generational lines. Older senators preferred the traditional system of doing business--come to Washington in January, complete business by summer, and go home. No need for weekend trips or state work periods. Senators had plenty of time to deal with home-state business and reelection campaigns. But younger senators, facing the realities of the modern Senate, wanted a designated six-week summer recess to allow them to plan family vacations and reconnect with their constituency.
By 1969 McGee had gained enough support for a test run. The Senate recessed from August 13 to September 3. Young reformers gleefully left town, while older members grumbled. “There’s too much work piling up,” snarled one. “Now we’ll be here till Christmas!” Come September, the reviews were mixed. It certainly was “no vacation,” insisted George Aiken of Vermont, who discovered that his Senate work followed him home. But even critics acknowledged that the break provided useful opportunities to connect with constituents. “The feedback you get while hitting the fish fries . . . gives you a totally different feeling than you get in Washington,” confessed Indiana’s Vance Hartke.
Finally, on August 6, 1971, as mandated by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, the Senate began its first official August recess. Thanks to the persistent efforts of Senator McGee and his allies, the Senate could finally prove Vice President Garner wrong. Good legislation can come out of Washington, even after June--if the Senate gets an August recess!