The Donald Trump era has now been marked by the shattering of yet another seemingly unbreakable tradition.
This one has nothing to do with calling out NATO, shredding trade deals, or forcing recalcitrant Republicans to actually deliver what they’ve long promised on illegal immigration. But it does fall right in line with something the president has been doing since his audacious arrival in Washington almost 19 months ago: challenging the establishment to break protocol.
For almost 60 years, one of the unshakable traditions in the DC swamp has been the congressional summer recess. It was first instituted in 1959 and has continued every summer since. Woe to the earnest, civic-minded member of Congress who might call for the House or Senate to conduct business in this most oppressive of months. Lest we forget, Washington is built on not just a figurative, but literal swamp.
Up through about the 1930s, Congress was generally in session for six to eight months – from December to June – but once the agenda kept growing with the expansion of government in the FDR era, Congress extended their sessions to almost the full year. More members began objecting, calling for more time off to return to their home districts or states, and the summer recess was implemented.
So when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) bowed to calls from the president and junior Senators and scheduled a summer session starting today, it was not exactly met with overwhelming approval by his colleagues. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) put it this way: “Maine in August, with lovely fairs and festivals, fun, vs. swampy, humid DC, where my air conditioner keeps breaking.” She also objected to the notion that returning to her home state means she’s on vacation: “One of the aspects of canceling the August recess that most disturbs me is it plays into this myth that when we are at home, we aren’t working, and anyone who looked at my schedule from last weekend would know that I am working.”
The summer session actually began in late July, when the House adjourned for the summer while the Senate remained in session, punctuated by a one-week mini-recess ending on Tuesday. The upper chamber already produced the new defense authorization bill and other spending legislation earlier this month.
But there is no doubting the main purpose of slogging through August is what Sen. McConnell has long considered his top priority: judicial confirmations. Democrats have attempted every available maneuver, including excessively long hearings, to stall or block Trump nominees to the federal judiciary. August has been set aside to reduce the backlog.
Evidence of the significance McConnell places on his responsibility to steward the president’s judicial nominees is what the majority leader considers his proudest achievement: short-circuiting consideration of Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, and thus clearing the path for Trump’s eventual appointment of Neil Gorsuch. While McConnell may have thought deep-sixing Judge Garland was a wing and a prayer at the time given that Trump seemed certain to lose, he later called it “the most consequential decision I’ve ever made in my entire public career.” He will have a chance to make another major contribution to the high court as he continues to steer the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh through the Senate.
There is another potential benefit from this summer session for Republicans looking to hold or expand their razor-thin majority in the Senate. Forcing Democrats to remain swamp-bound robs them of precious time ordinarily reserved for campaigning. With the president’s approval numbers sneaking upward and ten Democrats defending seats in states won by Trump, those vulnerable incumbents can ill afford to lose this lengthy stretch of face time with their constituents. Once the fall legislative calendar kicks in after Labor Day, opportunities to campaign back in their home districts will swiftly diminish.
Finally of course, by working through this vacation month, Republicans hope to demonstrate their commitment to the American people as midterm elections approach. Whether this will actually impress the voters has yet to be determined. But given the likely confirmation of judges, reducing campaign time for vulnerable Democrats, and seizing on the opportunity to show the voters they’re willing to go above and beyond their normal workload, Senate Republicans have little to lose and much to gain.