The House of Representatives is taking two days off this week for Rosh Hashanah in the midst of an unresolved financial crisis. Meanwhile, the Senate is still in session. Do members of the House take off for every religious holiday?
No. Representatives get a break for Easter, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Christmas Day. The Senate operates according to a very similar schedule, except it remains in session for Yom Kippur and, at least in 2008, for Rosh Hashanah.
The holiday schedule can vary from year to year. Leaders from both parties set up a tentative list of days off every January, before Congress convenes. Lawmakers can adjust the schedule as needed and suspend holidays in case of an emergency. The tentative 2008 schedule for the Senate, for example, listed two days off for Rosh Hashanah. The chamber remained in session anyway, although no votes were scheduled to take place between Monday morning and Wednesday afternoon.
In the early days of Congress, when it was more difficult to travel long distances home, sessions lasted only from December to early spring—so the Jewish High Holidays were de facto days off. Members often met on religious holidays that fell within the session, including Christmas Day. (Religious services for members and their staffs were sometimes held inside the Capitol building.) Congress typically recessed for Easter, but on some occasions, such as during World War II, the holiday break was delayed or canceled.
It wasn't until 1958 that members began traveling home on the weekends and a yearlong session evolved. Since then, the party leaders have regularly scheduled days off for Christian and Jewish holidays, although there is no official law that requires them.
Bonus Explainer: How many members of Congress are Jewish? Twenty-nine in the House and 13 in the Senate. There are also two Muslim and two Buddhist lawmakers, all serving in the House, and 16 Mormons.
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Explainer thanksSen. Dick Durbin's office and Don Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office.