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Last week, PolitiFact Texas gave a Mostly False rating to a claim by Gov. Rick Perry that Congress is "on a five-week vacation," noting that even if lawmakers take some days off, they continue to attend to their districts by holding town halls and other meetings.
Not long after that fact-check appeared, a reader wrote in to ask us why we hadn’t taken President Barack Obama to task for using the same terminology to describe the congressional recess. We missed Obama’s comment the first time around, so we’ll check it here.
In his weekly address on Aug. 2, 2014, Obama touted recent job gains and urged Congress to act on some of his proposals, including spending on infrastructure, raising the minimum wage, student-loan reforms, equal pay and paid leave. Such initiatives have been stalled in the House, currently controlled by the Republicans, and to an extent the Senate, where the GOP minority has tools it can use to block legislation.
So Obama sought to paint congressional Republicans as being derelict in their duty by leaving town for the summer recess.
"House Republicans actually got together this week and voted to sue me for taking actions on my own," Obama said. "And then they left town for the month without settling a bunch of unfinished business that matters to working families across America. … And when they return from vacation next month, instead of trying to pass partisan bills on party lines, hopefully we can come together with the sense of common purpose that you expect. And in the meantime, I will never stop doing whatever I can, whenever I can, not only to make sure that our economy succeeds, but that people like you succeed."
The White House used the word again in the introduction to the transcript it sent to reporters, saying that "Congress is about to go on vacation."
While Perry was referring to a different issue -- border security -- he expressed equal disgust at Congress leaving Washington. "Congress shouldn’t be on a five-week vacation," Perry said. "I can assure you that drug cartels and gangs are not on vacation."
We don’t see any significant differences in the context of the two politicians’ uses of the word "vacation," so we’ll recap here what PolitiFact Texas found when it talked to congressional experts and apply it to Obama’s comment. (The White House did not respond to our inquiry for this article.)
A 1970 law mandates annual recess
The annual August break is required by law, according to an Aug. 6, 2014, 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, 2014.
Is the recess a vacation?
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 reelection might enjoy family time or a vacation," the story said.
PolitiFact Texas found many members who held or planned to hold official appearances, outreach sessions with voters and the like during the recess period.
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."
Obama’s own vacation
Meanwhile, we’d be remiss if we didn’t note that Obama himself hasn’t exactly been huddled, monk-like, 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.
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, as well as some of his supporters.
For instance, the New York Times quoted Jim Manley, a veteran Democratic strategist, saying, "As a general rule, I think that he’s right that you can’t be held hostage to the news cycle — the man deserves a bit of downtime," said. "But in this particular instance, I think a lot of Democrats flinched a little bit. … (The video of the beheading) was just so shocking that the idea that he was going to immediately run to the golf course was just a little too much for folks. It was tone-deaf."
For the record, 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.
A president, Knoller tweeted, "is never really on ‘vacation.’ The job and responsibilities go with him wherever he is."
This suggests that Obama should know better than to label Congress’ August recess with the broad brush of "vacation."
Obama said Congress is on "vacation." Hypocrisy aside -- Obama was about to go on vacation himself just a week later -- he’s stretching it on the terminology.
During Congress’ August recess -- mandated by a 1970 law -- lawmakers aren’t debating matters on the floor of the House or Senate. But even if they take some dog days off, the recess isn’t a no-work vacation. Lawmakers continue to attend to their districts by holding town halls and other meetings, and many also campaign. On balance, we rate Obama’s claim the same as Perry’s -- Mostly False.
Barack Obama, weekly address, Aug. 2, 2014
PolitiFact Texas, "Rick Perry incorrect Congress on five-week vacation; it's a legally mandated and working recess," Aug. 15, 2014
New York Times, "A Terrorist Horror, Then Golf: Incongruity Fuels Obama Critics," Aug. 21, 2014
Mediaite, "Concha: After Foley Beheading, Obama Making Golf Getaways Difficult to Defend," Aug. 20, 2014
News story, "With national ambitions, Ted Cruz and Rick Perry ramp up rivalry," Dallas Morning News, published Aug. 8, 2014, updated Aug. 9, 2014
News analysis, "No More Hearings, No More Bills, Congress Is Headed Out for Summer," Time, Aug. 4, 2014 (accessed Aug. 12, 2014)
Washington Wire blog post, "Do-Nothing Congress Takes a Vacation," Linda Killian, senior scholar, United States Studies, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in the Wall Street Journal, Aug. 6, 2014 (accessed Aug. 12, 2014)
Document, "Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970," effective Oct. 26, 1970, U.S. Government Accountability Office (downloaded Aug. 13, 2014)
Web pages, "Senate History, the August Recess," "Senate History, 1964-present August 6, 1971 Give Us a (Summer) Break!," U.S. Senate, undated (accessed Aug. 12, 2014)
Definition of vacation, Merriam-Webster web entry (accessed Aug. 12, 2014)
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