The U.S. House and Senate wrap up work in Washington this week, setting the stage for the August recess, a misunderstood, but extremely useful period of time for lawmakers.
Originally established as a way for members of Congress to flee the stifling heat and humidity of Washington, D.C., the month-long break serves several important purposes. An effective break will be a mix of unwinding, reconnecting with family, reflecting deeply on the dilemmas of the day, finding opportunities to build camaraderie and understanding with those of the other party, and reconnecting with constituents back home.
Using one's time effectively can make all of the difference once members return for the end of the year legislative sprint that begins in September. Here are four things any lawmaker headed back home should do before returning to Washington:
1. Spend time with family. A lawmaker's spouse and children are her or his most essential constituents and closest advisors. Unfortunately, they can often be some of the most geographically distant as well. My family remained in Minnesota during my Congressional service. Even though I flew home every weekend, my calendar was frequently packed with Congressional or political events. A successful recess will allow a member to get together with their loved ones for a few nice quiet dinners, conversations, and perhaps a smartphone-free family summer vacation. For our family, nothing beats time on one of Minnesota's many lakes.
2. Spend time with constituents. Members of Congress may spend time working in Washington, but they work for the people of their home state or district. A productive recess will include several listening sessions with constituents. These discussions serve a dual purpose: voters can learn what is happening in Washington on issues that are important to them but might not make the evening news, and legislators get a chance to hear from the folks that are directly affected by the work they do in the Capitol.
3. Stay alert. August is also a time when legislative issues can be won and lost. Much of the backlash over the president's health care law began during the August recess of 2009. A similar situation could play out on immigration as well. Issue advocates have a different set of priorities for recess. Lawmakers must be prepared to act to boost or minimize the impact advocacy groups have on public opinion.
4. Go on a fact-finding trip. After catching up with his or her most important constituencies, a legislator should explore opportunities to go on a codel, a Congressional delegation fact-finding trip, with some fellow lawmakers. Since all codels must include members of both parties, they are a chance to escape the back and forth in the Capitol to come together to learn and discuss issues with members of the opposite party in a more collegial manner. Some of my closest connections with members of Congress from the other party were forged during these trips. I just recently spent time with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, reminiscing about our time together during a trip to Iraq. In today's increasingly global world and contentious Washington, people of competing parties spending time shoulder-to-shoulder learning more about both each other and the challenges America faces should be encouraged.
Keeping abreast of the political undercurrents while boosting one's knowledge of policy issues, constituent attitudes, and family ties should allow any legislator to return to Washington ready to act on any number of issues that could come before them in the fall.