Ruth: Is Congress in recess or not? It's hard to tell

Published Aug. 1, 2013

To paraphrase the immortal words of that noted philosopher Mel Brooks, it is good to be a princeling of the Potomac. Or more pointedly, being a member of the U.S. Congress means you do just a bit more work for your paycheck than the British royal family, Gov. Rick Scott's barber and Alex Rodriguez.

If you watch the daily dilly-dallying from Washington, you might well think all matter of vital matters are being debated within the sanctified chambers of the Capitol — National Security Agency snooping on your Aunt Bessie's quilting circle, immigration reform, the farm bill, the future of the U.S. Postal Service, the effects of sequestration (which could lead to a Navy made up of canoes) and what to do about that crazy nut running Syria.

And Congress will get right to those critically important issues — after they return from a monthlong August vacation, which our elected representatives need simply to revitalize themselves after being in session for a brutal 18 days after their July 4th vacation.

The Senate especially will need the battery recharging time so that it can roll up its sleeves for toil before taking the rest of the year off starting Nov. 8. How these people bear up under the unrelenting burden of showing up for work every now and then is anybody's guess.

It seems that even when the Senate and House do punch their time clocks, less gets accomplished than Lucille Ball confronted by a chocolate candy assembly line.

As the Washington Monthly pointed out a few months ago, if the preceding 112th Congress was regarded as the least productive legislative session in the history of the republic, with only 283 laws passed over a two-year period, the 113th Congress is on pace to offer a thinner resume than that of Otis, Mayberry's town drunk.

As of the end of end of July, Congress had passed 15 bills that actually made it into law, including approving a chief financial officer for the District of Columbia, an animal generic drug act, the Hurricane Sandy relief bill after great Category 5 puffery, and a measure allowing boating access around dams in Kentucky. The Continental Congress this was not.

There was one other bill that made its way through Congress to President Obama's desk for signing — a measure setting an interest cap on federally subsidized student loans. The initiative could have been addressed in early July instead of causing protracted anxiety for millions of students and their parents who feared interest rates would double. But Congress had a vacation to attend to. Priorities are important.

It's not as if the House hasn't been busy, busy, busy, as it did schedule a meaningless vote to repeal parts or all of Obamacare — for the 40th time, dating back to the prior Congress.

Many members of the House and Senate would likely take issue with the repeated use of the term "vacation" to describe their generous "Want to get away from it all?" respites from the rigors of primping for their trips to Fox News or Meet the Press or CNN.

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The preferred Washington word is "recess," which might sound judicious to the pols, but probably conjures up images of 12-year-olds playing jacks or hopscotch or kickball. Perhaps members of Congress are on to something.

No doubt House and Senate members would insist — tut-tut — they really aren't in recess at all, or going on vacation. They are merely returning to their states and districts and their beloved constituents to hear their views and explain the incredible job they are doing to get pressing legislation such as the bill specifying the size of the National Basketball Hall of Fame commemorative coins passed.

It was Mark Twain who once observed: "No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session."

But Twain never met the labor-averse 113th Congress. Nothing much to fear here, even when they do show up for work — except death by a thousand sound bites.