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Associated Press/Photo by Lauren Victoria Burke

Time for recess

Congress | While Congress is away, congressional staff will ... keep on working, albeit at a slower pace

WASHINGTON-Staffers stroll the hall in jeans, take lunch breaks, and read constituent letters that didn't get read during the race to finish the economic legislation last week.

It's recess at the United States Capitol.

Members of Congress have returned home to campaign before Election Day. Members of their congressional staff are not allowed to work for their campaigns, since staffers' salaries come from taxes. Many, of course, join the campaign as "volunteers," which is fine as long as the work is during their off-hours. Some travel back to their members' district offices to help answer phones. For those in Washington, when the congressman, congresswoman, or senator walks out the door, the staffers don't have to mind their p's and q's as much.

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A jean-clad staffer in the Longworth cafeteria, inside one of the House office buildings, shrugged and said, "There's not as much to do. My office is pretty chill."

The air of vacation is a little hard to swallow if you think about staffers earning taxpayer dollars. While they often have nervous-breakdown-inducing schedules when Congress is in session, they're also out of session as much as 20 weeks out of the year. But considering the split duties between Washington and members' homes, the structure couldn't feasibly be different.

So staffers use these recess weeks as catch-up time.

"We're doing a lot of work that got delayed because of the time [the bailout] took," said J.D. Hooker, a legislative assistant in the office of Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.).

"We don't lie around in leisure clothes," said Dusty Holley, senior legislative assistant in the office of Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.). His Stetson sat in a chair next to him at the lunch table. "It's a dress hat," he explained.

One intern for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer sat in the Longworth cafeteria, glowing over a cupcake with frosting and sprinkles.

"I always sit at my desk and eat, but now I come down here," she said. Other interns with her said they are doing more work, but they get to leave an hour earlier.

Most offices don't want to go on the record for the work they're not doing now. When asked if they were relaxing a little more after the frenzied bailout, most became defensive.

"We're working hard," one chief of staff said before closing the door on the question.

Congressional reporters don't have it so bad, either. Newspapers like The Hill and Roll Call publish once or twice a week during recess, instead of four times a week. Reporters swagger into the office late, make some phone calls, scribble some notes for a long-term story, then head home.

The next official session begins January 3, 2009. However, members of the House and Senate may return after the election in November for lame duck sessions, where they can pass legislation before the next Congress, the 111th, begins its first session.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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