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August 05, 2013 10:22 AM The Recess Playground

By Ed Kilgore

In theory, congressional recesses are “working vacations” in which Members return home to meet with constituents, get in touch with the popular mood, and recharge their batteries for a productive return to Washington. The more senior Members get a shot at an attractive overseas junket. More junior Members, particularly the rapidly shrinking minority of House Members in competitive districts, get an opportunity for taxpayer funded quasi-campaign activities, and precious face-time with home turf donors and activists. And at this time of year everyone in politics benefits from a rescission in political journalism, whose most important practitioners are recharging their own batteries in vacation venues scattered all the way from the Hamptons to Martha’s Vineyard.

The August Idyll ain’t what it used to be. MOCs go home equipped with partisan “talking points” tailored (particularly among Republicans) to pander to “base” sensibilities while spinning recent and future developments in Washington to appeal to the more persuadable of low-information voters outside the “base.” National lobbying outfits are becoming ever more adept at “nationalizing” expressions of “constituent” opinion, through astroturfed “grassroots” protests, petitions and other finely manufactured remonstrations. The absence of attention from big-foot journalists matters less and less as the raw material of future “stories” is carefully collected by trackers and oppo researchers and tens of thousands of conscious and unconscious “citizen journalists” brandishing cellphone cameras.

The sheer gamesmanship involved in recess activities is escalating steadily, as noted by WaPo’s Matea Gold:

[E]ven as August recess activity intensifies, the opportunity to confront lawmakers face to face is diminishing. Since the town hall confrontations of four years ago, fewer lawmakers are holding open gatherings or widely publicized constituent events, according to advocacy groups on both sides of the aisle.
So activists are using crowdsourcing to track down events and post them online, along with suggested talking points. FreedomWorks unveiled its “Demand a Townhall” Web effort last week, while Americans United for Change launched a similar site called Accountable Congress. The liberal group also is asking supporters to record their encounters with lawmakers and share the videos, hoping to capture moments that fuel a “national narrative,” Woodhouse said.

In this particular August, few Members actually believe they are arming themselves emotionally for a fine burst of productive activity when they return to Washington. The two most interesting national recess phenomena, both focused on Republicans, are the Tea Party effort to build momentum for a destructive drive to “de-fund Obamacare,” and the business-activist campaign to revive prospects for enactment of comprehensive immigration reform legislation. The former initiative is largely doomed by the opposition of the Senate and the White House, and the aspects of the Affordable Care Act that are on auto-pilot. The latter has been reduced by the dynamics of the House Republican Conference to a prayer for a small miracle in which the House GOP leadership would untangle itself from months of lies and evasions and let Democrats pass a bill.

So we’ll watch the recess roll along with less-than-bated breath, resigned to its phony conventions and grateful, at least, that it provides a break from the even phonier conventions of Washington At Work.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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