What This Gridlocked Congress Needs Is ... a Vacation

A little time back home communing with constituents, or just staring into the distance, might be just what the taxpayer ordered.
Photographer: Caroline Tompkins for Bloomberg Businessweek

Gina McIntosh was born in France to Italian parents, is married to a Canadian, and runs a bed-and-breakfast in Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt—about an hour-and-a-half drive north of Marseille—that caters to travelers from all parts of Europe as well as South Africa, Australia, and the U.S. So she knows a thing or two about different nations’ attitudes toward time off from work. Nobody, she says, takes vacations as seriously as her fellow French: “French people, for sure, they take their vacation in August. That’s not even a question. You can’t touch the vacation of French people. That’s part of their right. They fought for it. It is something that is very engraved in the rights of the French people.”

Americans are ... different. Sure, they dig their toes in the sand every summer, but they don’t believe vacations are enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Vacationing Americans are more likely to sneak a peak at their work email once a day, or once every 10 minutes. They’re torn between worrying that the office won’t function without them or—worse—that it will function just fine without them. And it’s laughably easy to get Americans to feel guilty about taking time off when they haven’t accomplished what they were supposed to get done before they left.

On July 19, President Trump played on the vacation guilt of members of Congress when he demanded that they postpone their August recess until they managed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. “We shouldn’t leave town until this is complete—until this bill is on my desk and until we all go over to the Oval Office,” he told Republican senators at a White House lunch meeting.

To put things in perspective, the high temperature that day in Washington was a humid 97F. Not a conducive environment, even indoors, for making a negotiating breakthrough among 500-plus cooped-up lawmakers who were already frustrated, bored, embarrassed, or angry over the Obamacare stalemate. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, a character says that hell is other people. In the D.C. summer-stock adaptation, hell is other congresspeople.

Congress could learn something from the French. Or the Germans, who work even fewer hours per year on average than the French, yet maintain a high, well-ordered standard of living. In Germany, “people have a very strong ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude. They ride their motorcycle or their Porsche. The quality of life is so high,” says Amrei Gold, who works for the German National Tourist Office in New York.

Europeans view vacation not as a reward but as a necessity—a periodic restorative as essential as sleep. According to the 2016 Vacation Deprivation Study by Expedia, employed Americans on average are offered 15 vacation days a year but take only 12. The French are offered 30 vacation days a year and take all 30. “The instinct to say, ‘Just sacrifice your time off’ is uniquely American and uniquely American business,” says Lonnie Golden, an economist at the Abington campus of Pennsylvania State University.

In 2011, Golden conducted a review for the International Labour Organization of the academic literature on the relationship between work and productivity. “In many industries,” he found, “it appears that shorter hours are associated with higher output rates per hour.” Golden just returned to the U.S. from another guest stint at the ILO headquarters in Geneva, where the Europeans quickly called out his American ways. “I would bring my lunch and eat at my desk,” he says. “That was completely unacceptable culturally. Everybody takes an hour off for lunch.”

Calestous Juma, a professor of the practice of international development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says Europeans are more “evolved” than Americans when it comes to feelings about work and leisure. But it’s not just Europeans who have a healthier perspective. “I was raised in rural Kenya, where work and rest were defined by season or completion of tasks,” Juma writes in a LinkedIn message. “You were free to party so long as you were done.”

American congresspeople are finely attuned to their constituents’ feelings, so it’s no surprise that the American ambivalence about vacation manifests itself in the almost annual debate over whether to take the August recess. On one hand, Congress rarely accomplishes everything it intends to by the end of July. On the other hand, August is a great time to be almost anywhere but the District of Columbia. John Nance Garner, who was speaker of the House before becoming vice president to Franklin Roosevelt, famously said, “No good legislation ever comes out of Washington after June.” In 1970, after a string of agonizing summer sessions, Congress gave itself an August recess as part of the Legislative Reorganization Act, but both houses are free to keep working if they feel they must.

That’s where the guilt comes in. Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse seems like the kind of lawmaker who would love to get out of the Capitol more. He’s a devoted family man; his three children are home-schooled; on Father’s Day he issued a video message on Facebook telling dads to step up. But in July he told CNN that Congress should work 18 hours a day, six days a week on repealing and replacing Obamacare, and if necessary skip the August recess. Except he didn’t call it a recess; formally, it’s the August “state work period.” Ugh. At press time, the Senate was scheduled to remain in session the first two weeks of August to knock heads, with the House prepared to return from recess early to take up any bills passed by the other chamber.

Honestly, does anyone think members of Congress are capable of solving problems creatively at this advanced stage of their stalemate? The accumulation of unresolved issues is like a weight on their chests: not just Obamacare, but a tax plan, infrastructure, the debt ceiling, the 2018 budget, and more. Sheer exertion isn’t the answer. To schedule one fruitless meeting after another now could induce the congressional equivalent of rhabdomyolisis—the death of muscle fibers caused by overly strenuous exercise.

Instead, a bit of time back home, communing with constituents or just staring into the distance from a ridge in the Ozarks, the Adirondacks, the Tetons, or the Cascades might be just the thing to help lawmakers see a way through to governing. Work, the rest of the world knows, doesn’t always equal achievement. As a wise person once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no sense being a damn fool about it.”

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