What Is August Recess, Exactly?

If you’re relatively new to political advocacy, or if your activism has focused on people and issues beyond Congress until recently, you may have heard organizers discussing August recess plans and wondered, “What is August recess?” Though for most of us, the word “recess” calls to mind memories of school-day breaks for playtime, for members of Congress, recess is a time to work.
Also known as “district work periods,” Congressional recesses are times when our representatives in the House and Senate return from Washington, D.C., to listen to We, the People – or these days, We, the Resistance. We are their bosses, after all, and it’s important for us to take full advantage of every opportunity to tell them what we expect from them while they work for us. August recess is the longest district work period, which means constituents have more chances to make our voices heard.
Returning to our school analogy for a minute, August recess is a perfect moment to give your representatives a progress report — to let them know what they’re doing well, where they’re failing, and what you expect from them if they’d like to pass—as in, what you demand as their constituent. Though for much of the year, our most direct way of letting members of Congress know what we want is sending emails or making calls to their offices, during recess we have more opportunities to hit the gold standard of civic engagement: talking to our representatives in person.
August is an especially good time to do this. In addition to town halls and similar events, members of Congress are often available at the many fairs, festivals, and other events that take place this time of year. Many representatives will hold office hours at local eateries, parks, or other public spaces, which you can learn about via their websites, mailing lists, or through local news outlets. And even if members of Congress aren’t holding town halls or having public office hours — and many aren’t, especially Republicans who’ve taken unpopular positions on issues like health care — constituents may have more chances to successfully request meetings at their offices because it’s a longer recess. As a bonus, visible constituent advocacy is often more likely to get media coverage in August, because local reporters frequently take advantage of the longer work period to get access to members of Congress, too. All of this increases the potential impact of our advocacy.
Though a handful of conservative political operatives have attempted to downplay the significance of the resistance many elected officials encountered earlier this year by falsely identifying angry constituents as “paid protesters,” the righteous and rowdy groundswell of pro-health care activism that confronted many members during previous recesses — and the reelection-threatening media coverage that came with it — has played a big role in the unexpectedly successful defense of the Affordable Care Act. Resistance works, and when constituents are organized, visible, and unrelenting in our advocacy around our priority issues, we can win the fight for our representatives’ attention and ultimately, their legislative decisions.
Remember: though lobbyists and other special interests have plenty of money they can donate to politicians’ campaigns, special interest money only outweighs citizen engagement when citizens aren’t engaged. The false or misleading ads those dollars usually buy don’t work on attentive, thoughtful, and engaged constituents, and elected officials know this. So the more we write, call, and especially show up in person to let them know that we’re watching and expect them to vote in accordance with our priorities, the more likely they are to do what we want.
This particular August recess is a bit unusual, in that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently decided to delay the Senate’s recess in order to buy extra time to complete his party’s attacks on the ACA. So while we may end up waiting a couple of extra days before Senators come back to their district offices, we can still call and write to them in the meantime, while making plans to see them and their counterparts in the House when they do come home. We’ve got all the resources you’ll need to most the most of this recess below.