In D.C., a summer slumber

Break: Government recesses let workers find time to relax and catch up on personal tasks.

August 20, 1999|By Georgia N. Alexakis | Georgia N. Alexakis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Finally, there's room to stretch. There's a chance to yawn. And during the day, some even find time for a midafternoon snooze.

It's the end of August, and with Congress in recess, the Supreme Court gone since June and the vacationer-in-chief having left town yesterday for Martha's Vineyard and other sun-dappled spots, the nation's capital has settled into its annual late-summer slumber.

Overworked lobbyists, lawyers and legislative assistants can kick up their heels and plop them down on their desks.

Morning commuters on the Metro are greeted by a sprinkling of pastel-colored polo shirts instead of the usual shoulder-to-shoulder sea of pin-striped power suits.

And finding an empty seat in Union Station's food court during lunch hour is no longer a matter of good timing and good fortune. Instead, the biggest challenge is deciding how long of a lunch break to take -- one hour or two?

Who's left in Washington this time of year other than the usual droves of tourists? Not many of the regulars. Empty congressional corridors and lightly staffed news bureaus have rendered much of Washington a government ghost town.

"I took a nap during my lunch hour yesterday," one House aide said this week as he sat on a park bench near Capitol Hill reading a Stephen King book at 2 p.m.

"Tomorrow, I think I'll have a picnic. It helps make up for the long hours I work when Congress is in session," he said.

Like so many others, the aide would not give his name, lest his boss find out what seems to be an open secret in official Washington: Come August, when even the most powerful members of Congress trade their minutes on the floor for some rest and relaxation, the staff members left behind tend to long-neglected personal matters -- the dental appointment, a trip to the mechanic, an overdue haircut.

`The nonwork part'

"We're still working, but you get a chance to reclaim the nonwork part of your life," said John Feehery, press secretary for House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "I actually get a chance to take a lunch, and I work 9 to 5, which is a pretty novel thing."

It may not sound like much, but for Washington's workaholics, such a schedule is to be savored while they have the chance. They know that the carefree summer days are few and fleeting -- that before you can say "12-hour-workday," they'll be back on their diet of brown-bag lunches, gulped down at their desk between urgent phone calls.

"It's like going from a four-lane highway to a dirt road," said another press secretary, who asked that her name not be used for fear that her boss, a senator, would think she was not operating at peak efficiency.

"It takes a while to get used to the new speed, but then you start to slow down and the dust stops flying. You learn to appreciate the change of pace," she said.

For those left behind this late in the month, productivity has taken on new meaning. Conference calls have been put on hold. Lobbyists are cleaning out desks, organizing files and sorting through e-mail.

Nearly all the nonvacationers swear they have a "long-term project" they are eager to tackle or a stack of journals they have been meaning to review.

`Not much else to do'

Others, like Don Alexander of the Washington law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, are a bit more candid in describing the way they budget their time these days. On a recent Sunday morning -- a time he reserves during the rest of the year for work -- Alexander watched a golf tournament on television and sorted through his sock drawer.

"They're flimsy wastes of time," Alexander said, "but there's not much else to do this time of year."

Wright Andrews, a partner and lobbyist with Butera & Andrews, makes no apologies about his shorter workweeks and the lunch hours he spends honing his golf game. He says he might as well prop a sign on his desk, declaring that he has all but gone fishin'.

"I, for one, have every intention of relaxing," said Andrews, who hopes to get out of the city by the end of the week, with no plans of returning until Labor Day. "All work and no play makes a bad lobbyist."

Publication takes break

For many members of the press, the August doldrums can leave them with no choice but to do nothing. Roll Call, the twice-weekly publication that covers Capitol Hill, ceased publication Monday and will not print again until after Labor Day. About half the editorial staff will be on vacation next week, says managing editor Ed Henry.

The staff's mass exodus is helped by a general news slump. While Roll Call would have covered Monday's hazardous material scare in the Dirksen Building's cafeteria, Henry was surprised to see the story -- which turned out to be about a foul-smelling bag of onions -- on the front page of the Washington Post.

"If you're going to be short-handed, this is the time to do it," Henry said. "We may have stopped publishing, but other papers don't have much to write about either."

`What free time?'

Not everyone inside the Beltway has reaped the benefits of the summer slowdown. A call this week to the campaign headquarters of Gore 2000 was returned by a harried-sounding staff member with only a few minutes to spare.

"Free time? What free time?" he asked. "You've called the wrong place."

For Joshua Tingle, who manages the temporary employment division of the D.C.-based Prime Temps, August is his busiest time of year. The more vacation time that others take, the less Tingle gets as he scrambles to fill openings left by vacationing Washingtonians.

"I tried to take two days off last week; I kept getting interrupted," Tingle said. "I got 10 calls at home in a matter of hours. It got to the point where I said, `Why don't I just come in?' I don't mind, but the less other people work, the more I have to."

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