President Obama always knew he'd face an uphill battle to get healthcare reform legislation through Congress this year. He gave them a pretty generous timeline to do so, and we are fast approaching one of the dates on that timeline -- each house of Congress is supposed to pass their version of a healthcare reform bill by the time Congress breaks for the summer for five weeks. Achieving this milestone on Obama's timeline is now officially in doubt. So Obama should push back a little, and unveil the threat of using Article II, Section 3, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, which states that the president "may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them." In other words: call a "special session" of Congress. In even plainer language: cancel their month-long-plus vacation.
It's not exactly a secret that members of Congress sure do love their vacations. Oh, pardon me, I should have said "district work periods" and not "vacations." So sorry.
This year alone, let us examine Congress' work schedule to date. They took a week off for New Year's Day. A week off for Presidents' Day (most private-sector workers don't even get a day off for this one). Two entire weeks off for Easter, or in non-secular language: "Spring break." Another week off for Memorial Day. A full week off for Independence Day. And this doesn't count the fact that in normal times, Congress only convenes from mid-day Tuesday to mid-day Thursday -- what would amount (if they were on a timeclock, that is) to a two-day week. To be fair, sometimes they actually work Mondays or Fridays, but not always. And sometimes committee meetings are held on days when the houses don't formally open.
But still, the vacation weeks alone add up to six weeks vacation taken already this year, with a five-week summer break scheduled to begin after the first week in August. That is eleven weeks of vacation for two-thirds of the year, and does not count upcoming breaks for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays. By anybody's standards, a pretty generous vacation schedule.
Again, to be fair, Congressfolk are supposed to theoretically "get in touch with their constituents" during these periods. And most do hold the occasional open house, or attend a parade or two during these breaks. But then again, they also take vacations they don't have to pay for (see: "junket") and otherwise enjoy themselves during these times, as well.
But Obama has the power to throw a monkey wrench into their relaxing plans for August. Because he can force them back to Washington, until they finish healthcare reform bills. In other words, until they do their jobs. And merely by threatening to do this, it could light a fire under some very reluctant members of Congress who, right now, appear to be more interested in running out the clock on the whole debate.
The Hill reported this week on the continuing saga of Harry Reid v. Max Baucus. Baucus chairs the Senate Finance Committee (one of the two Senate committees the bill has to make it through), and Reid reportedly got tough with him earlier this week, and told him to give up on Republican votes and just get something passed that Democrats could actually vote for. Baucus balked. Reid, being Reid, is now timidly walking back this ultimatum by meeting with Republicans to assuage their worries of being shut out of the process. But a few quotes from Republican senators leapt out at me from the article in The Hill:
"Bipartisan talks are going to continue, and not continue under a very hard timeline."
"[Reid] understands the enormity of this issue and the challenges it presents and that it's most important to be able to build a bipartisan consensus. If that requires more time, it requires more time."
The whole tone of the article can be summed up as: "don't bet on the Senate getting this done before August." This is reinforced by Baucus himself, who was quoted, when asked if he'd meet the timeline, "We [will] agree when we agree."
Historically, before the advent of the Air Conditioning Age, people in Congress fled Washington as fast as possible to avoid being anywhere near the District in August. This, as anyone who has spent August there knows, is fully understandable. Washington, D.C. was built on a swamp (this is historical fact, not hyperbole). Swamps are unpleasant in the summertime. So it's a perfect time to get out of town.
Also historically, calling special sessions of Congress is as rare as amendments to the Constitution (both have happened exactly twenty-seven times). The last time it happened it was a political gimmick that may have helped Harry Truman win election, as Truman called for the "Turnip Day" session during his speech accepting the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention of 1948. Because Republicans didn't get anything done during this special session, the label "Do-Nothing Congress" stuck, which Truman hammered hard during his campaign.
This is the risk for presidents of flexing this particular constitutional muscle. Congressmen will not be happy with you for calling them back to D.C. and interrupting their vacations (oh, excuse me, "district work periods," I don't know why I keep doing that...). And annoyed Congresscritters are not exactly going to be in the mood to do what you want them to.
But Obama could get almost as much political mileage out of this tactic by just threatening a special session. This is known as "showing some steel," from the practice of knights of old pulling their swords a few inches out of their scabbards as a warning gesture.
Obama could regain the mantle of leadership in this debate by dropping a few hints that he's considering calling a special session in August... if his healthcare reform timeline is not met. He could wax indignant over Congress' generous vacation, while people are literally dying out there for lack of health insurance. It would pit Obama against Congress (both parties), but Obama has already shown he is more than willing to take on his own party in Congress, so this wouldn't be that much of a reach for him. And Congress' approval ratings are not exactly through the roof, so it's an easy road (politically) to take.
If handled correctly, the public would be on Obama's side and support his call for a special session. Because it's pretty hard to defend a five-week-long vacation when you've already taken six weeks off this year already. And virtually everyone understands the concept of: "you can play when your homework is done."
-- Chris Weigant