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In Defense of the Poorly Named August Recess

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Welcome to the August (Quasi-)Recess. No, there will not be kickball.

Congress is ready to head home to tend to constituents’ concerns, cut ribbons, and eat plenty of fried food at state fairs and community carnivals for some fits and starts in coming weeks. With Election Day just under 100 days away, that local tending comes at a crucial window. Sure, it looks like the House—or at least enough proxy holders—will be coming back the second week of August to maybe pass a tax, climate, and infrastructure bill, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find many lawmakers lingering in D.C. this month to pick up where the Senate left off. The reasons are as pragmatic as they are political: Washington has no voters of consequence, D.C. is mighty miserable right now, and even the most stable seats can find themselves in play if an incumbent neglects them.
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Congress has long faced a branding problem of its own making. “Recess” conjures images of dodgeball, “horse” under the hoops, and hopscotch. It sounds childish for most, and suggests lawmakers are blowing off some steam after a PB&J and before an afternoon of spelling drills and math problems. But the reality is that a whole lot of lawmakers would rather skip the hellish return to their homes and stay in Washington. After all, most lawmakers find deeper pockets in Washington donors than back home, the folks looking to grind their ears have far more nuanced patience for legislative realities than their constituents, and it’s tough to pick up your dinner around the corner without at least someone recognizing you and hauling off on a two-bit tirade informed by social media. That final confrontation can make Lunchables seem much more appealing.

But the time away from Washington has plenty of actual value. Sure, the grip-and-grin at the local dog shelter makes for good moments on the midday newscast, usually coming in right after the weather and before the local high school sports feature. But if you’re a military veteran caught up in red tape, a small-community fiscal officer trying to get an answer from an accounting bureaucrat in a regional office, or a high schooler looking to win a recommendation to an elite military academy, having your member of Congress nearby is invaluable. As much as Americans like to deride Congress as unresponsive and out-of-touch, when lawmakers catch wind of an opportunity to make themselves look good, they latch onto it. It’s good politics to unclog a political drain, and proximity makes things pressing.

Much of the arm-chair political class mocks the August Recess as a vacation by another name. Lawmakers get the jab and have even taken to calling it a “district work period,” trying to prove to the handful of constituents who know where to find the floor calendar on the Majority Whip’s page that they aren’t spending the weeks dozing.

There’s truth in this. The best democracy is one practiced with direct contact with constituents, and being home prods that for most lawmakers. It’s easy to ignore a comment line but tough to dodge a local fire chief who wants to know why his department didn’t get the same cash as his buddy down the highway. When a member is home, he or she is spending about twice as much time working on parochial work for constituents as when in D.C. Put another way: having the member sleeping at home means they’re doing more of the work voters say they want.

So while there will be plenty of eye-rolling and sighing about Congress’ perceived laziness, they’re still working more than most folks: 59 hours per week when in their districts, compared to 70 hours when Congress is in session, according to one survey. So it’s not likely to be any sort of break from the demands of the gig. It’s just that their bosses—the people—are a whole lot closer.

And the entire House and a full third of the Senate have a performance review come November; it’s called an election.

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