TIME 2014 Election

Secret Koch Event Audio Could Be Gift for Senate Democrats

Koch Brothers Protest
Members of the "Save Our News'' coalition rally before delivering a 500,000-signature petition urging the Tribune Co. management to reject any offers by the Koch Brothers to buy The Los Angeles Times newspaper outside the newspaper headquarters in Los Angeles on May 29, 2013. Damian Dovarganes—AP

It's not what Republican candidates said that has Democrats salivating, but who they said it to

There was little revealed in the new, illicitly recorded audio tapes of top Senate Republican candidates addressing a group of high-dollar Republican donors, but their very existence may give Democrats a needed boost going into the fall’s midterm elections.

On Tuesday, The Nation released audio of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addressing a June meeting in Dana Point, Calif. convened by the Koch Brothers, the billionaire energy magnates who have become Democratic bogeymen this fall. Early Wednesday, the Huffington Post followed with audio from a trio of Senate hopefuls: Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst and Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, and Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner.

The muffled surreptitiously-recorded audio from the closed-door summit is hard to make out, not that it matters. McConnell repeated his longstanding opposition to campaign finance restrictions. Ernst and Cotton thanked the donors at the confab for their support. Gardner not-so-subtly suggested that their outside money efforts would decide his fate. None of this is news to anyone, but the optics of the candidates appearing to kowtow to the Kochs is enough to send Democrats into overdrive.

For months Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and an array of outside groups have tried to turn the Koch brothers into household names. “Republicans are addicted to Koch,” Reid declared in March on the Senate floor. The DSCC, which owns kochaddiction.com has placed the the billionaires at the center of their midterm messaging, arguing GOP candidates are beholden to the donors at the expense of their states. Meanwhile, Senate Majority PAC, funded by the Democrats’ own high-dollar donors, is blasting GOP candidates on the air for their ties to the Kochs.

The Democratic message has long had two aims: drive up Democratic fundraising, while turning swing voters away from Republican candidates. On the first front, the effort has clearly been successful. Senate Democrats maintain a strong fundraising advantage over Republicans, while their outside efforts have progressed mightily since 2010. Meanwhile, Democratic Senate candidates have managed to maintain polling advantages as the fall campaign heats up.

“It makes it much harder for them to try to hide their agenda,” said DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky. “Stuff like this audio recording helps tie them to their records.”

Barasky wouldn’t preview the virtually guaranteed onslaught of ads to incorporate the latest audio. “I would say that Democrats will continue to tie GOP senate candidates to the highly damaging Koch brothers agenda that they’re all pushing,” he said.

McConnell’s team tried to turn lemons into lemonade, touting the fact that he said the same thing behind closed doors as he does in public. “In contrast to Alison Lundergan Grimes’ failure to defend Kentucky coal from the EPA behind closed doors with Obama donors, Senator McConnell fights for Kentucky wherever he goes. Earlier this summer Grimes failed to utter a word of support after promising Kentuckians she would defend Kentucky coal at a Harry Reid fundraiser and lord knows what she said to Tom Steyer and anti-coal billionaires when she attended their conference in Chicago,” said McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore.

Brook Hougesen, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee said the Democratic attacks are “blatantly hypocritical.” “Harry Reid’s Majority PAC and other Democratic outside groups are outspending Republicans by millions including Put Alaska First – a front group for Reid’s PAC in Alaska where Democrats have poured in more than $5 million in a desperate attempt to save Mark Begich,” she said. “The reality is while Democrats are distracting themselves with their contrived baseless attacks that don’t resonate with voters, Republicans are talking about their solutions and reminding folks that a vote for Democrats like Mark Begich, Mark Udall and Kay Hagan are votes are Harry Reid and Barack Obama’s failed agenda.”

Both audio records were posted by The Undercurrent, a self-described “grassroots political web-show” hosted by Lauren Windsor. The show is affiliated with the progressive Young Turks Internet network, and sponsored by the progressive nonprofit group, American Family Voices. The method of the recording has not been disclosed.

TIME 2014 Election

Hawaii Democratic Senate Primary Finally Ends As Rep. Colleen Hanabusa Concedes

Colleen Hanabusa
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, left, and a group of supporters do some last minute campaigning near the polling place on Aug. 15, 2014, in Pahoa, Hawaii. Marco Garcia—AP

Hanabusa announced Tuesday she will not challenge the results of the Senate primary in court

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa will not challenge the results of the close primary election between her and Sen. Brian Schatz, a race that came to an end an entire week after the originally scheduled primary.

In a statement published by several media outlets in Hawaii, Hanabusa said ,”though I will not be challenging the results of this election, I remain very concerned about the public’s confidence and trust in our election process.”

“I ask former colleagues and friends in the Hawaii State Legislature to explore what is necessary to ensure the people that their vote truly counts,” the statement continues. “I heard from many who feel strongly that they were disenfranchised from the voting process this election and I stand ready to support any collaborative effort to have those voices heard,” Hanabusa says.

Late last Friday the Associated Press called the race for Schatz, who beat Hanabusa by 1,769 votes following a rare one-day vote in two precincts in the rural Puna district of the Big Island of Hawaii. The district was ravaged by Tropical Storm Iselle, which downed trees and caused widespread power outages that kept voters from making it to the polls on Aug. 9.

Before last week’s election, Hanabusa filed a legal request to delay the election by a week so residents of Puna could focus on recovering from the storm, but a Hawaii judge denied the request. In interviews following the election, Hanabusa hinted that she might challenge the election in court.

On Tuesday, Schatz issued a statement congratulating Rep. Hanabusa for “waging a tough and spirited battle.”

“This election has been extraordinary from beginning to end. It took heart, teamwork and a belief that together we are making a real difference for our state and our country,” Schatz’s statement reads. “Now it is time for us to unite as we move forward to the general election.”

The election has been one of the toughest Democratic primaries this election season, but Schatz is expected to win the general election come November. A Republican hasn’t won a Senate election in Hawaii since 1970. Schatz and many Democrats believe his progressive stance, particularly his support for expanding Social Security, have and will carry him to victory in the general election.

TIME 2014 Election

Dan Sullivan Wins Alaska’s GOP Senate Primary

And it didn't take long for general election fight to begin in earnest

Former Alaska Natural Resources commissioner Dan Sullivan won a nasty—and with nearly $10 million spent, costly—GOP primary Tuesday to take on Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat vying for a second term — and it didn’t take long for the two campaigns to start slinging attacks at each other.

With 98.6% of precincts reporting, Sullivan garnered 40% of the vote to Tea Partier Joe Miller’s surprisingly strong 32% and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell’s embarrassing 23%. Though Miller had once threatened to run as an independent spoiler should he lose the primary, he said in recent weeks that he’d back the nominee. With the Republican Party finally united after an eight-month primary battle, Sullivan and Democrats quickly turned to the general election fight.

Labeling Sullivan an “Outsider” within minutes of the results, Democrats launched what will surely be the first of many attacks on what they call Sullivan’s carpetbagger status. Sullivan grew up in Ohio before joining the Marines. When he left the Corps in 1997, he moved to Alaska where he practiced law for five years before moving to Washington DC to join the Bush Administration in 2002. He returned to Alaska in 2007 to serve as then Gov. Sarah Palin’s attorney general and then director of the National Resources Commission.

“Alaska’s bitter and divisive Republican primary exposed that Dan Sullivan does not look out for what’s in the best interests of Alaskans,” said Matt Canter, deputy director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the Senate. “After carrying water for Sarah Palin and trying to restrict access to public lands for hunters and fishers, Sullivan is now hoping to do the Koch brothers’ bidding in the U.S. Senate.”

Republicans, meanwhile, worked to tie Begich, a former Anchorage mayor, to President Obama, who is disliked by six out of 10 Alaskan voters. “Mark Begich has championed the Obama agenda, and served on [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid’s leadership team that has brought the Senate to a grinding halt,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the Senate. “Even though Senator Begich has failed to pass even a single amendment during his five years in Washington, he has voted for the Obama agenda a staggering 97% of the time – including costly energy taxes, spending increases, and of course, ObamaCare.”

Alaska remains one of the most hard fought Senate races and the battle between Begich and Sullivan—and their outside groups— is only just ramping up. If Alaskans were hoping for a respite in the biting television ads and dirty mailers, it’s going to be another two and a half months yet.

TIME 2014 midterm elections

Alaska Voters Get Ready for the Polar Primary

Alaska Senate Republicans
From left, U.S. Senate Republican candidates Joe Miller, Dan Sullivan and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell take part in a debate in Eagle River, Alaska on Aug. 4, 2014. Mark Thiessen—AP

Alaskans vote to pick which Republican will take on Democratic Sen. Mark Begich

Alaskans go to the polls Tuesday to decide the match up for the last big Senate race of the 2014 cycle. Voters there will pick which Republican will challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, a former Anchorage mayor seeking a second Senate term.

The GOP primary has already been messy. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell entered the race as the establishment favorite and 11 points up in at least one poll a year ago. However, Treadwell faltered on fundraising and organization, giving a window to Dan Sullivan, the former Natural Resources commissioner under once-governor Sarah Palin. Sullivan quickly cemented himself as the frontrunner, garnering the support of the likes of Karl Rove, and has lead in polls since.

That said, don’t discount the 49th state’s ability to surprise politically. The third candidate on the ballot is a living example of that: Joe Miller, a Tea Partier who beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary in 2010 but lost the general election to Murkowski, who waged a rare write-in campaign. Sullivan generally garners 30-40% in polls, with Treadwell pulling 20-25% and Miller coming in with 15%-20%. Polls, though, are notoriously unreliable in this state.

The nasty primary, replete with one Miller mailer depicting illegal aliens as gang thugs, has been expensive for Republicans, with Sullivan spending more than $3 million of the $4 million he raised by the end of July. Treadwell spent more than $1 million and Miller nearly $600,000. Begich enters the general election with more than $2 million cash on hand, having spent a whopping $5.2 million in ads promoting himself or attacking his would-be rivals, mostly focusing his fire on Sullivan.

And what Alaska primary would be complete without a bit of confusion? There’s also a Dan Sullivan running for lieutenant governor, which could addle some voters unsure of which Sullivan to vote for in which race.

Begich, who has carefully tended to Alaska’s needs anticipating a tough reelection, enters the general election slightly ahead of Treadwell and Sullivan in hypothetical head-to-head match ups and with a commanding lead over Miller. He will also likely benefit from a spate of third party candidates already on the ballot, including two Libertarians likely to draw votes from the GOP candidate.

The national winds run against Begich these midterms. Six in ten Alaskan voters disapprove of President Barack Obama, to whom Republicans are tying Begich. “Mark Begich has been a champion for [Obama’s] agenda in the Senate, voting with him a staggering 97% of the time leaving even Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders—94% of the time—in the dust,” says Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the Senate. “Think about that, Mark Begich votes with President Obama more than socialist Bernie Sanders no matter the issue—costly energy taxes, spending increases, and of course, Obamacare.”

Every race is local, though, and given GOP infighting and Begich’s surprising polling resilience, most independent observers rate this seat as lean Democratic.

TIME

Ernst Says She Was Sexually Harassed in the Military

Joni Ernst
Republican Iowa State Sen. Joni Ernst in Des Moines, Iowa on May 29, 2014. Charlie Neibergall—AP

Breaks with party, Pentagon on stance and talks about her experience with harassment for the first time

Republican State Sen. Joni Ernst, who is running for Senate and served more than 20 years in the military, said Friday that she was sexually harassed in the military and, given her experience, is backing the removal of cases of sexual assault from the military chain of command, a position that puts her at odds with much of the GOP.

“I had comments, passes, things like that,” Ernst tells TIME. “These were some things where I was able to say stop and it simply stopped but there are other circumstances both for women and for men where they don’t stop and they may be afraid to report it.”

If elected Ernst, who was deployed in Iraq in 2003-2004 and currently commands the largest battalion in the Iowa Army National Guard, would be the first female combat veteran to serve in the Senate. Ernst says the issue is a personal one for her ever since she volunteered for a battered women’s shelter for two years in college, carrying a pager for the hospital and helping women overcome the physical and emotional results of abuse. Because of this experience, Ernst is expected on Friday in an evening speech the Iowa Federation of Republican Women’s Diamond Anniversary dinner in Sioux City to endorse taking cases of sexual assault outside of the chain of command.

“This legislation must ensure that sexual crimes in the military are both independently investigated and prosecuted,” Ernst writes in a draft of her Sioux City speech, provided to TIME by her staff. “This will not be an easy challenge. I understand many in my own party in Washington will oppose this plan, as will many in the military and Pentagon. However, this should not be a partisan issue, and as a woman in uniform, I know that we must act now.”

Ernst isn’t endorsing Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill, her staff says, which would refer all sexual harassment cases to the Judge Advocates General Corps, but she pledged to work “with Senator Gillibrand and other Senate leaders in seeking bipartisan support for new legislation.” Ernst would refer all reports to an independent investigator outside of the chain of command and if criminal charges are warranted, then those cases would be referred to “an independent, experience prosecutor.”

Taking the process outside the chain of the command was opposed by the Pentagon and, ultimately, the Gillibrand bill came five votes short of a breaking a filibuster in March. Gillibrand has vowed to bring the bill up again next session. Ernst’s vote would not get her one vote closer as Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat Ernst is vying to replace, voted for the measure. Eleven Republicans also voted for the measure, though the majority of the conference opposed it.

Rep. Bruce Braley, Ernst’s Democratic opponent, currently has a television ad up in Iowa about legislation he sponsored strengthening protections for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in the military. The bill is called the Holley Lynn James Act, for a woman in the military killed by her husband. In the ad James’s father thanks Braley for his strong support of women in the military. Braley also endorsed Gillibrand’s bill early on. “Those who oppose these reforms are on the wrong side of history and I’m going to do everything I can to support reforms that address this crisis,” Braley said when the bill failed the Senate.

Sexual assault in the military is reaching epidemic proportions, discouraging many women from enlisting, though both men and women are victims of such crimes. In 2012, of the 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military only 3,000 were reported and only 400 went to trial. After the Senate tightened some of those rules, thanks to the efforts of Gillibrand and other female senators who pushed the issue, in 2013 more than 5,000 cases were reported and nearly 500 went to trial. There are more than 200,000 women serving in the armed forces, making up less than 15% of those in uniform.

TIME Election 2014

Storm-Struck Hawaiians to Decide Senate Primary

Hawaii Primary
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa waves at drivers while campaigning for U.S. Senate in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 2014. Audrey McAvoy—AP

A special one-day election will decide whether Sen. Brian Schatz or Rep. Colleen Hanabusa secure the primary win in Hawaii

A pocket of voters in a remote area of Hawaii will cast the deciding ballots in one the country’s most tense Senate primary races during a one-day election on Friday.

About 6,800 eligible voters in the former hippie enclave Puna, a rural district in the easternmost area of the Big Island that is still reeling from Tropical Storm Iselle, essentially hold the fate of Democrats Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Sen. Brian Schatz in their hands. Due to power outages and blocked roads, voters set to cast ballots at Keonepoko Elementary School and Hawaiian Paradise Community Center found their polling stations closed during last Saturday’s primary. About 1,500 voters from the area already sent in absentee ballots and will not be able to vote on Friday, according to Hawaii News Now.

Polls will only open at the two locations, Keonepoko Elementary School and Hawaiian Paradise Community Center, Friday from 7 a.m. until 6p.m. It’s a rare move, offering a handful of voters a lot of power and focusing an inordinate amount attention on the often-forgotten district, as many residents said in interviews with the New York Times.

As of Sunday’s count, Sen. Schatz was 1,635 votes ahead of Hanabussa and the election will likely swing his way following Friday’s vote, though neither camp had given up on trying to sway this handful of voters as it came down the wire. Both candidates traveled to the Puna district this week, distributing water, ice and food to affected residents. More than 6,000 people are still without power, the Hawaii Electric Light company said Thursday.

State lawmakers have called the decision to hold elections amid the recovery insensitive and Rep. Hanabusa filed a lawsuit earlier this week to have the election delayed. On Thursday, Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura denied the motion and the election resumed as planned on Friday morning.

In a statement following the judge’s decision, Schatz’s campaign manager Clay Schroers said Schatz “continues to focus his energies on helping the people of Puna to recover.”

Hanabusa’s camp noted that while their recovery efforts would continue, the focus on Friday would be on the election. “We will continue to distribute food, water, fruit and ice to those in need. But we need people to be aware that there is an election tomorrow,” said campaign spokesman Peter Boylan, according to the Associated Press. “This campaign is not over, and we will continue to work very hard to earn every vote.”

Outside progressive groups poured money into helping Schatz, appointed by now-ousted Gov. Neil Abercrombie following the death of longtime Sen. Daniel Inoyue, to help him keep the seat. On the other hand, Inoyue loyalists have bolstered support for Hanabussa, who the late Senator requested to succeed him on his deathbed. Regardless of who wins on Friday, a Democrat is projected to secure the seat in the Senate—the last time a Republican was elected to the Senate from Hawaii was Sen. Hiram Fong in 1970.

TIME 2014 elections

Michelle Nunn Grabs Zell Miller Endorsement

Former Georgia governor and U.S. Senator Zell Miller gives a boost to the Nunn campaign

Former Georgia governor and U.S. Senator Zell Miller endorsed Senate Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn Thursday, calling her a “bridge-builder” that could end Washington partisanship.

Miller, an 82 year-old conservative Democrat, has a history of working with and endorsing Republicans. He endorsed President George W. Bush in 2004, Sen. Saxby Chambilss (R-Ga.) in 2008 and Gov. Sonny Perdue, the cousin of Nunn Republican opponent David Perdue, in 2006. This cycle Miller is also supporting Republican Gov. Nathan Deal over Democrat Jason Carter, the grandson of the former president.

The Miller endorsement caps a whirlwind week for the Nunn-Perdue race. The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s dropped its $2.5 million ad campaign calling Nunn “Obama’s senator,” Nunn released her first negative ad ripping Perdue’s business record, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a piece the Perdue campaign has labeled Nunn’s “DC Insider Land Deal.” The New York Times Senate forecaster moved its rankings of the race from “Tossup” to “Lean Republican” on Thursday.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bb8D3UPaLz4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTREGpKHHKQ#t=20

But Nunn’s camp is hoping the endorsement from Miller, who worked with her father, former senator Sam Nunn in the 1990s, will generate momentum for her campaign.

“I have great respect for her dedication to public service, and her dedication to bipartisan results,” Miller told the Journal-Constitution, citing Nunn’s leadership of the service organization Points of Light, which was created by former President George H.W. Bush. “I think she shares a lot of characteristics with her father.”

“I’ve known her since she was born,” he added.

TIME 2014 elections

Republican Bashes Michelle Nunn Over ‘DC Insider Land Deal’ With Lobbyists

Michelle Nunn speaks to her supporters after winning the Democratic primary for Georgia Senate on May 20, 2014. Akili-Casundria Ramsess—AP

David Perdue, the Georgia Republican businessman running for Senate, criticized his Democratic opponent Michelle Nunn over a land deal she struck with two Washington lobbyists four years ago.

The deal protected from future development large portions of 850 acres in Glynn County, which projects out into the Atlantic Ocean. Nunn and the lobbyists—one-time aides to her father, Sam, the former Senator—secured a $2 million loan in 2004 to buy the land in the hopes of building new houses and condominiums, but the idea fell through during the recession, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The 2010 land deal gave back “tens of thousands of dollars” in tax benefits, the newspaper reported.

Perdue called it a “DC insider land deal” on Twitter Wednesday night, shortly after the new broke. A campaign spokesman told the Journal-Constitution that the deal was evidence that Nunn isn’t the Washington outsider she claims to be.

“Michelle Nunn’s cozy relationships with Washington insiders undercut everything she is saying in her TV ads,” Perdue spokesman Derrick Dickey told the Journal-Constitution. “They are not only funding her campaign to mislead Georgians about who she really is, but they are apparently funding her personal business deals as well.”

Nunn’s campaign predicted the attack as early as December, writing in a memo to the candidate that it would prepare “complex and lengthy” pushback documents relating to “Michelle’s conservation easements.” That memo, leaked by National Review last month, listed “Nunn is not a ‘real’ Georgian” as one potential attack to combat. Nunn has lived in Georgia since 1989, but grew up in Maryland.

Nunn’s campaign told the Journal-Constitution that preserving land for environmental reasons is a widespread practice used by Democrats and Republicans, including Perdue’s cousin, former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue.

“It’s the highest hypocrisy for David Perdue to criticize a conservation program championed by his cousin and business partner, Governor Sonny Perdue,” Nunn spokesman Nathan Click told the Journal-Constitution.

“Michelle, her husband, Senator Nunn and Colleen Nunn were able to protect beautiful land in Glynn County for future generations through a program supported not just by Governor Perdue but a broad swath of Georgia leaders including Senators Chambliss and Isakson,” he added.

The Times Senate forecaster moved its rankings of the race from “Tossup” to “Lean Republican” on Thursday. Nunn released her first negative ad attacking Perdue’s business record earlier this week.

TIME 2014 Election

Hawaii Governor Ousted In Surprise Primary Loss

Neil Abercrombie, David Ige
Hawaii State Sen. David Ige, right, waves to his supporters an thanks Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie, right, who promised his support, Aug. 9, 2014, in Honolulu. Eugene Tanner—AP

But Senate race too close to call

The Hawaii Democrat Party is making Republicans in the state look unified and organized. In a primary season dominated by GOP strife, Hawaii now has its own brand of drama. On Saturday, voters went to the polls and decisively voted out incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie. State Sen. David Ige got 66% of the vote to Abercrombie’s 30.9%. Abercrombie is the first sitting governor to lose a primary since 2010.

Abercrombie probably wasn’t helped by a pair of storms that have ravaged the islands just before voting. Abercrombie’s reputation for mismanagement and poor preparation were highlighted as Tropical Storn Iselle and Hurricane Julio passed through the islands, leaving the final week of campaigning and voting Saturday in chaos. He could’ve postponed the primary but chose not to. Ige isn’t a shoo-in, though. He now faces Republican Duke Aiona, a former lieutenant governor, and Independent Mufi Hannemann, a former Democratic mayor of Honolulu.

Speaking of ongoing tough races, the election to pick the Democratic nominee for the Senate will take weeks to sort out. Abercrombie appointed Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz to the post after longtime Sen. Daniel Inouye passed in late 2012. But on his death bed, Inouye said he wanted Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to succeed him. Hanabusa, who also has the endorsement of Inouye’s widow, and Schatz, who has the endorsement of President Obama, are squaring off in the primary.

As of early Sunday, Schatz holds a narrow lead of 1,788, or 48.6% of the vote to Hanabusa’s 47.8%.

Remember that bad Kevin Costner movie, Swing Vote, where he discovers he’s the only person in America who can decide a presidential race? Yes, the one where every expert said that’s not possible because when polls close, they close. Well, apparently, Hawaii is about to experience firsthand a version of that movie. A tiny pocket of 8,000 eligible voters who were in the areas most severely impacted by the storms were given the ability to vote by mail in the coming weeks. The fate of the seat now rests in their hands — and on how much Hanabusa and Schatz can charm them.

TIME Congress

No More Hearings, No More Bills, Congress Is Headed Out for Summer

The U.S. House of Representatives chamber is seen December 8, 2008 in Washington.
The U.S. House of Representatives chamber is seen December 8, 2008 in Washington. Brendan Hoffman—Getty Images

Here's why Congress calls it quits every August

Updated on August 4, 2014 at 2 p.m.

Every August, the city of Washington, D.C. virtually shuts down. Beginning late Friday night, Congress has left town for five weeks, and there will be no hearings in session. Some may be wondering why exactly Congress is packing up and heading out of town.

The straight answer? It’s the law. In 1970, Congress enacted a mandatory five-week break for itself beginning the first week of August and extending past Labor Day weekend, all as part of the Legislative Reorganization Act. When the law passed, there were many younger lawmakers with children coming into Congress who wanted a more predictable legislative schedule and designated vacation times.

Over the years, legislative sessions had gotten longer and longer. From 1789 up through the 1930s, Congress convened in December and stayed in session for only five or six months. In fact, until the 20th century, the position was not full time and lawmakers could work other jobs in the half of the year they weren’t in session — a member also trained as a butcher could, theoretically make laws and sausage. By the 1950s, sessions were extending well into July, and by the 1960s Congress wasn’t adjourning until autumn. Sessions hit a record length in 1963 when Senate convened in January and adjourned in December — at that point, three-day weekends were the members’ only breaks.

So, largely under the leadership of Sen. Gale McGee who championed the idea of August recess as a way to “modernize Congress,” junior members lobbied senior members to install a recess in the schedule. The first official August recess began on August 6, 1971.

But just because it’s called a recess doesn’t mean Congressional leaders are taking a break. “Business still goes on,” Senate Historian Don Ritchie said. “There’s just no action on the floor during that period.”

Especially because this is an election year, many members will be campaigning, visiting offices and town halls in their home states and holding town meetings. Offices will stay open to receive mail and calls from constituents. Members who aren’t up for reelection might enjoy family time or a vacation, or they can take on a Congressional delegation, Ritchie said. Really, it’s entirely up to the member to decide what he or she wants to do during August recess.

However, should lawmakers decide they want to wrap up some work before vacationing, they have the option to do so. Members can push the August recess back by passing an extension resolution. There have also been instances where Congress has had to return mid-recess. In 2004, Congress came back to hold hearings in light of the release of the 9/11 Commission Report. In 2005, Congress returned to pass legislation to aid Hurricane Katrina victims. This year, the start of the recess was delayed slightly on Friday, as lawmakers worked on changes to two immigration bills.

“There are a lot of people who think they shouldn’t take time off. Some think the more time they’re away the better,” Ritchie said. “Every needs some vacation, though.”

Update: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that it was published after Congressional passage of recent highway funding and immigration bills.

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