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Congress adjourns as election anxieties mount

Timothy grajek for the boston globe

In 2007, after I had maneuvered to force a Saturday vote on a bill banning taxes on the Internet, a Senate colleague proposed a clever technique for closing the deal sooner. He encouraged me to request a vote on another, minor amendment simply to bring senators to the floor on Thursday morning. “They’ll smell the jet fumes,” he said, “get agitated, and start asking questions about getting out of here.” The magic worked. Before that Thursday was out, we had negotiated a seven-year extension of the Internet Tax Freedom Act.

For members of Congress, nothing sharpens the senses and motivates the spirit like the vision of airplanes idling on a tarmac. It makes them uncomfortable, impatient, and anxious to get home. The end of the week is a powerful motivator, and August recess even more so. But when the bells ring for August recess during an election year, you would be well advised to steer clear of the Capitol exits.

As the annual break kicks off this week, just 92 days separate a few hundred incumbent senators and representatives from election day. To some, that will seem like a long march. For most, however, it will pass by in a flash. The most prominent races have been in full swing since early spring, and any good politician relishes the home stretch.


Even those lucky few without closely contested races will be carefully attuned to their constituents in the coming weeks. The stunning primary upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor still hangs in the Capitol air as a reminder of what can happen even in a “safe” district to the elected official who loses touch.

Regardless of whether they are fighting for their political lives, every member of Congress will find the topics of conversation to be worlds apart from when the year began. At the beginning of every election year, pundits confidently predict the issues that will define the outcome of races across the country. They are usually wrong.

To no one’s surprise, Obamacare and its failures remain a campaign staple. But no one expected a humanitarian crisis at the border or fraudulent record keeping at the Department of Veterans Affairs to dominate stump speeches with Labor Day looming on the horizon. In that regard, campaign season is like the proverbial box of chocolates in the film “Forrest Gump”: You never know what you’re going to get.


It doesn’t help matters that congressional approval ratings continue to scrape along at all-time lows for Democrats and Republicans alike. As some consolation, voters always seem to rank the popularity of their own representatives higher than the institution as a whole. Even so, these days the tone and tenor of the traditional “town hall” style meeting tends more toward “Lord of the Flies” than “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

That’s a real change from 10 or 15 years ago — one driven primarily by the rise of digital media. Given today’s ability to film anything anywhere and upload the results immediately, every public event becomes an opportunity to confront, protest, and embarrass. The extremes become emboldened. Candidates become more defensive.

As a result, campaigns have gravitated toward carefully crafted schedules and stage-managed events. Everything from a factory tour to a walk down Main Street becomes packaged, planned, and controlled to reinforce a message, frame the photo op, and avoid surprises. Political spontaneity is dead. Ironically, the Internet killed it.

August becomes a particularly pivotal campaign month in states that hold primary elections in early September, as Massachusetts and New Hampshire do. Amid the dog days of summer and with a crowded ballot looming — there were eight candidates in my first congressional primary — the greatest challenge can be just getting noticed.

The calendar may be filled with campaign events, and political ads may be starting to take over the airwaves, but that doesn’t mean anyone is paying attention. For even the most civic-minded Americans, the choice between watching a political debate and taking a long weekend at the beach isn’t much of a choice. Both figuratively and literally, the response to a summertime political pitch is often, “come back after Labor Day.”


And much to their dismay, the lawmakers will come back after Labor Day — to Washington and the halls of the Capitol. In the scramble to break for recess, Congress left behind a long list of unfinished business like border security, spending bills, and tax reform. In the old days, someone might have made them skip recess to get their homework done. But the enticing combination of state fairs, summertime air, and jet fumes is too much to resist.

John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.