The most popular word in my elementary school days was "recess!" It meant all things good and happy, freedom and fresh air (though in Minnesota it was frequently freezing fresh air). It was the only time in my life the word was used until I came to Washington, DC, where hearing "recess" engenders the same emotions as it did for me and countless others in elementary school. The obvious comparison of Congress and elementary school shall now stop; it is just too inviting a comparison.
August in Washington, DC, is our "recess". Congress goes home, the city quiets down, traffic congestion lessens, lobbyists and policy analysts go on vacation, and thousands of desks get cleaned and organized. It is sort of like France, where the whole country shuts down for the month of August. While the rest of the country toils away with their standard 2 weeks a year vacation allotment, Washington, DC takes the month off (except for me, of course!).
A Congressional recess is merely a period of time that Congress adjourns (subject to the call of the chair) and returns to their districts and states, whence they came. There are several recesses throughout the year, though most are only a week in duration (Easter, Memorial Day, July 4th, etc). The big one, though, is August. It is an ideal time to take a month off. The weather in Washington, DC, in August is usually at it's worst. It also is traditionally the start of the campaign season and provides a neat two or so months to finish things up in September and October before the first Tuesday in November.
This year's recess is critical as it is a mid term election year. For some members, this may be their last month-long vacation as a Congressperson or Senator. The November midterm elections are especially challenging for the incumbent party this year, since the current incumbent party holds slim majorities in both the House and Senate. Couple this with the current approval ratings for the President, whose party controls both Chambers, and the stakes for this August recess suddenly loom large.
Every single Congressperson and Senator is now at home, marching in parades, attending barbeques, kissing babies, and lecturing the Rotary Club. These days, they are also holding "Town Meetings" and are usually more frequently attempting to raise money than meet individual voters. When they are in Washington, DC, most of them are just anonymous faces amongst 535 legislators, but back home they are genuine rock stars. Despite Americans poor reputation of not knowing who their Congressperson is, the local Congressperson is much more recognizable at home than in Washington, DC. The alternative is true for the big movers and shakers in Washington. The Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee is just a simple Congressman back home in the "Salad Bowl Days" parade in Visalia, not the head of one of the most powerful committees in DC.
A recess also has an Americana element to it. It is a time (outside of an election) where the member of Congress gets to hear from his or her constituents full bore. No filters from elite media or lobbying groups. They hear opinions loudly and clearly on street corners and taverns, from neighbors and mayors. In some respects, Congress on recess is more "democratic" and representative than when they are in session. In Washington they are isolated somewhat from their constituents and are at the beck and call of their national parties, interest groups and the administration. On recess, they are on their own amongst their own. This is made even more striking in the USA where, unlike in many countries, citizens are not shy about talking (or yelling) at a Congressperson. Probably only Canada and Australia have this same low level of deference to leadership.
Congressional opinions rarely change in Washington, DC, but it is not uncommon for a Congressperson to be chastened back home on recess. Former Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski was nearly run over many years ago by angry people when he was back home (they were angry at changes to Social Security). Members use the August recess to gauge opinions and temperatures on a host of issues - Iraq, terrorism, etc.
Recess is also the one time of year that Congressional pork (see this article) is celebrated. Every speech made in the district or state this August will refer to something the member added to a bill to build something in the district. It is shouted out with glee and no one complains. It is also a time for another occasionally controversial Congressional trait - the junket (or Congressional Delegation) to someplace in the world.
I would argue that two things define a Congress: recess and elections. Both are opportunities for the people to voice, or act on, their opinions directly to their representatives. If these two did not exist, Congress wouldn't be a democratic institution, but would be more akin to the British House of Lords, the old Soviet Politburo or the Iranian Guardian Council.
Congress is frequently chided for taking too many days off. This current Congress is on track to be the least worked of all. I would argue, however, that forcing Congress to go home is not a bad thing. They may not use the time well, and probably will hang out with people who agree with them, or maybe just go into the woods with their family, but it is still a good thing that they leave for home. As I run by the Capitol every evening in August I am genuinely happy that they are at home and that my fellow citizens are giving them an earful. Recesses make a democracy democratic.