Finishing the legislative session in the summer used to be a yearly occurrence, with its own traditions. Members tried to guess the correct date of adjournment, sweltered through the final bills of summer, then sang into the night. Before Congress headed home for the season, these congressional traditions were recorded in photographs.
Summer adjournment, or recess, began as a break from the withering heat and swampy humidity of Washington in July and August. Despite the 1928 installation of air conditioning in the House Chamber, the custom of summer recess continued. “In line with immemorial tradition, the members of Congress, sweltering freely yesterday in the first stunning impact of Washington’s hot humidity, broke out at once in a rash of white suits and early adjournment talk,” the Washington Post reported on May 27, 1937, during the first session of the 75th Congress.
The year, the Post polled the public about whether Congress should adjourn and go home or stay in Washington to plow through New Deal legislation early that August. A Minnesota truck driver, a clerk from Ohio, and a West Virginia teacher all expressed their belief that Congress should stay in Washington. But a law student from Iowa voted for adjournment. He explained that Members should return to their districts to learn the opinions of their constituents about legislation. That way, Representatives could return better informed to make decisions for the next session.
Although Representatives and Senators hoped for an early closure that year, pressing issues, including the President’s plan to add Supreme Court Justices, kept pushing back the date. One Senator, who was also a physician, moaned that keeping Congress around for the summer would be “nothing less than manslaughter.” Nonetheless, the House waited until August 21 to adjourn. A photograph shows Members racing down the Capitol steps in their seersucker suits.
After adjournment, Members headed for their home districts or a vacation: Hawaiian Delegate Samuel King boarded the first boat back to Honolulu; Representative Richard Welch and his wife took a road trip west across Canada then south to their San Francisco district; and Representative Robert Hill cooled off in the North Carolina mountains, before heading home to Oklahoma City. Members sometimes returned to their previous occupations, like law or medicine, during the long break between sessions. The House returned in November for the second session of the 75th Congress.
In June 1955, the New York Times noted that the atmosphere in the Chamber was calm, despite the possibility of adjournment shortly approaching. But when Congress remained in session in mid-July, the Times had diagnosed “adjournment fever.” Symptoms of this “recurring epidemic” included “a harried expression” and a desire to leave Washington. Members and staff awaited the words “sine die,” a Latin term meaning “without day,” signifying the end of the session. In an oral history, Press Gallery employee Ben West recalled hearing the slogan “sine die by Fourth of July” during the 80th Congress (read the transcript here).
Years later, on August 2, 1955, at 11:36 p.m., the House recessed. A newswire photograph, with the title “It’s All Over,” shows ecstatic House Pages throwing a storm of papers into the air. In the next half hour, Members waited for a concurrent resolution from the Senate before the break could become an official sine die adjournment. Bill Goodwin, a Page at the time, recounted in his oral history being asked to sing for the House—and then performing a duet with Representative Coya Knutson—during the wait:
After the festivities finished and the Members went home, the work of the House continued. During the quiet recess, workers cleaned up the Chamber and made repairs to the roof and floor in anticipation of the next session. Summer recess, now typically in the month of August, can still inspire the same sense of “adjournment fever” on Capitol Hill.
Sources: The Washington Post, May 27, 1937, August 8, 1937, and August 21, 1937; New York Times, June 24, 1937; June 22, 1955; and July 17, 1955.Follow @USHouseHistory