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Sorting out the truth in politics

PolitiFact: Obama shouldn't cast Congress' mandated recess as vacation

President Obama speaks about the situation in Ukraine in the Press Briefing Room of the White House on Thursday Aug. 28, 2014. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT) 1156695

President Obama speaks about the situation in Ukraine in the Press Briefing Room of the White House on Thursday Aug. 28, 2014. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT) 1156695

The statement

Congress is on "vacation."

President Barack Obama, Aug. 2, in an address

The ruling

The annual August break is required by law, according to an Aug. 6 Wall Street Journal blog post by Linda Killian, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, a think tank.

The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, she wrote, directs the House and Senate to recess for the month of August, until after Labor Day. The act says that unless Congress provides otherwise, the House and Senate shall adjourn no later than July 31 of each year or so and, it looks to us, to remain adjourned to the second day after Labor Day. (It does say the mandate shall not be applicable in any year there's a state of war as declared by Congress as of July 31.)

This year, Congress started its five-week summer recess on Aug. 1.

Now, it's one thing not to be in session, but is that the same as taking a vacation?

First, there's the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of vacation: a "period of time that a person spends away from home, school, or business usually in order to relax or travel."

Just because it's called a recess doesn't mean congressional leaders are taking a break. "Business still goes on," Senate Historian Don Ritchie told Time magazine. "There's just no action on the floor."

Scant business goes on, we suspect, though an official House calendar listed a few hearings scheduled during the 2014 recess — an Aug. 6 hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on health care access in rural America, hosted by panel Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.; an Aug. 7 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations about combating the Ebola threat; and an Aug. 14 hearing, also by the Veterans Affairs panel, on rural health care and infrastructure needs.

Time's story said: "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 re-election might enjoy family time or a vacation," the story said.

The American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein, a longtime congressional observer, said that during recesses, most senators and House members "use this time to travel to trouble spots or to go back and campaign or do meetings in their home districts or states. They are not laying back in the sun, but working. I would prefer more time in Washington legislating, and less time back in the district. But calling this a five-week vacation is a distortion."

We'd be remiss if we didn't note that Obama himself hasn't exactly been huddled, monklike, in the Oval Office this August. He left with his family for a vacation in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., on Aug. 9, then returned to Washington for about 48 hours before resuming his vacation that then ended Aug. 24.

The Obamas' time away came during an unusually intense news period that included unrest in Ferguson, Mo., the launch of U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic extremist group ISIS, the beheading of American journalist James Foley by ISIS, and the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa — pairings that were not lost on many of the president's critics.

CBS White House reporter Mark Knoller, the unofficial chronicler of presidential travels, reports that Obama has taken 19 vacations totaling 125 days so far while in office. That's far fewer than George W. Bush's 65 combined trips to his Texas ranch and his parents' home in Kennebunkport, Maine, which totaled 407 days at the same point in his presidency.

Hypocrisy aside, Obama is stretching it on the terminology and we rate his claim Mostly False.

Louis Jacobson, Times staff writer

Edited for print. Read the full version at

PolitiFact: Obama shouldn't cast Congress' mandated recess as vacation 08/29/14 [Last modified: Friday, August 29, 2014 4:47pm]
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