Lawmakers Draw Fire for Taking Breaks Amid Fiscal Crises

Billy House
National Journal

Questions about the House and Senate work schedules are being raised as key deadlines loom on how to address the automatic sequester spending reductions, keep the federal government funded, and perhaps deal with another debt-ceiling crisis.

“This country has serious challenges that need to be addressed,” said David Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general now heading the Comeback America Initiative, a nonprofit organization pushing for fiscal reforms. “Congress needs to be devoting full-time to these challenges.”

Walker’s group is being joined by others in a new Facebook petition campaign called “No Deal, No Break,” which aims to talk lawmakers into staying in Washington until they reach more meaningful and longer-term fiscal deals.

“There are no plans to change the House calendar,” responded Doug Heye, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., on Monday. The Senate is also expected to maintain its current schedule.

Both the House and the Senate have set a recess for all of next week, after the federal Presidents Day holiday is observed Monday. That means neither chamber is set to return to Washington until Feb. 25, just four days before the $85 billion in sequestration cuts—split between defense and domestic discretionary programs—is scheduled to take effect.

House and Senate leaders also have scheduled a spring break from March 25 to April 5, which includes Passover, Good Friday, and Easter. But this year, the current short-term funding bill for federal agencies expires March 27. Absent a solution, a partial government shutdown could occur.

And yet another break for both chambers is set from April 29 to May 3, leaving just two weeks before the suspension of the debt ceiling expires.

Walker points out that, in addition to the scheduled recesses, lawmakers typically don’t begin their work weeks in Washington in earnest until late Monday or Tuesday, and often fly out of town on Thursday or early Friday.

Of course, lawmakers are often still working when they leave Washington, meeting with constituents and taking care of business in their states and districts. Officially, the Senate calls time away from Washington “state work periods” and the House calls it “constituent work weeks.”

But Walker argues that, given the gravity of the issues facing the nation, it is important for the House and Senate in the upcoming weeks to be seen working in Washington to reach agreements and solutions. He calls it “outrageous” that Congress would be taking the equivalent of a “spring break.”

House Democrats also have been complaining about the schedule. On Monday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged Speaker John Boehner to cancel next week’s recess, warning that the impending sequester cuts “threaten further damage to our economic recovery, job creation, the middle class, and military readiness.”

She added, “The House should not recess and members of Congress should not go home until we finish our work, reach an agreement, and avert this crisis.”

Pelosi did not similarly ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to adjust the Senate’s schedule. Drew Hammill, her spokesman, said, “Pelosi has called for a balanced approach, which would include revenues. As you know, revenue bills must start in the House.”

Last month, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer raised his own concerns about the House being out of session the same week a new spending bill will be needed to keep government funded past March 27.

“Presumably we will have to get that done prior to that,” he said. “I hope that is the case.”