For DC Politicos, Even Romantic Vacations In Italy Mean Staying Plugged In

young girl on the beach, typing os smartphone
young girl on the beach, typing os smartphone

WASHINGTON -- It's August in Washington, which means Congress is on recess for a month -- a month! -- and thousands of D.C. political types can finally take a break from the intensity of Capitol Hill and go on the desperately needed vacations they've looked forward to since last August.

There's only one problem: Nobody seems to know how to stop working.

Congressional leadership aides who set up automated email responses about being "away" for a week? They're still online, reading through emails and selectively replying. Leaving a message for a White House aide on vacation? You may not have to wait until they're back if they like you, since they're probably checking those, too.

"I 100 percent have this issue. It's pointless for me to even put up a message," said Erica Elliot, spokeswoman for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). "Also, I sleep with my Blackberry in my hand."

Elliot said it's not that she thinks she's so important that she has to keep checking her messages. "It's more like a smack addict."

Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said he has the same depressing addiction.

"With Wi-Fi on planes and cell service everywhere it is impossible to unplug," Hammill said. "On vacations, my husband gives me an allowance: a specified number of times per day I can check my phone. But I usually sneak in a few extras when he's not looking. It's really quite sad when you think about it."

A senior administration official, who requested anonymity, said he always checks email on vacation because "the biggest dread I have in life" is coming back to work to find an inbox with thousands of emails.

"Definitely no Twitter. Twitter can go straight to hell," said the official. "Nothing ruins a vacation like intra-HuffPost Twitter banter."

HuffPost asked more than a dozen people involved in D.C. politics in some form -- senior House and Senate aides, Democratic and Republican party operatives, administration officials, journalists -- if they're capable of letting their email inbox gather a little dust, or if they have the will to stop weighing in on political news on Twitter for a few days. The resounding answer was no.

"Obviously no one wants to be glued to their device 24/7 while on vacation," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring, who is vacationing in Italy this month with his soon-to-be wife. "But I'll make it a point to check in multiple times per day."

"My fiancée will probably impose a Twitter blackout on the trip," he added.

"I never set up those auto-replies and generally check my email," said Steve Dennis, the White House reporter for CQ-Roll Call. He said it's not that big of a deal to stay connected all the time though, since depressingly he never gets a real vacation anyway.

"Alas, my time off is usually with a sick kid at home," Dennis said.

Some say they've really tried to leave work behind when they get a break, even firmly stating in their automated response messages that they'll be offline for a while and should be left alone. But then, a quick peek at emails turns into full-blown work conversations.

"It's almost impossible to totally unplug these days," said a Senate Democratic leadership aide. "I tend to rely on extreme exaggeration to make sure people get I'm not going to respond -- 'I'm off the grid, no phone, no email, back in a week.' ... That said, more emails get a response than not. What is wrong with me? This is a cry for help."

Pia Carusone, executive director for Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun control group led by former Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, said she's given up trying to have any real kind of vacation.

"Last time I attempted to seriously distance myself from email was on a trip to Mexico in late 2010. My 'vacation' week ended up being the lame-duck session where the House voted on the DREAM Act and Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal," Carusone said. "Since then, haven't bothered."

One of the people HuffPost reached out to for this piece inadvertently illustrated the point.

An email to a Democratic National Committee official returned an automated message saying he was on vacation and offline until Aug. 12. But four hours later, he emailed back -- he was online after all -- and attached a picture of a beautiful lakeside view, with the message, "And really, if you can do your job from here, what do you have to complain about?"

Members of Congress may have it the worst when it comes to being able to unplug. Even during August recess, when they're back home with their families, they have to hold district events, stay engaged with the issues awaiting them back in D.C. and raise money for their reelection campaigns.

"I don't even bother with the fake 'away' message because everyone knows I never stop working," said one freshman House lawmaker.

It's a "rare thing" for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to be offline, said his spokesman, Don Stewart. The only reason he may get a reprieve is because "there are some parts of the state where cell service is spotty."

In the end, it may be that family members are the only real kryptonite to a BlackBerry, since they can make the best case for the merits of unplugging: being present with the people who mean the most to them.

"It takes a bit to wind down," said JoDee Winterhof, chief of staff to Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), but "kids are ... good trainers to get your attention, engage and put down your technology."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said her daughter is turning 10 on Saturday, and for her birthday she asked her mom to put away her multiple phones and iPad for the entire 24 hours. Her daughter even said she wanted to take all the gadgets away so Wasserman Schultz wouldn't be tempted by them.

"It made me realize how often I'm not present, even when I'm present, if unplugging completely was something she wanted from me for her birthday," said Wasserman Schultz, who is also chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

"So, I will really be offline from midnight on Friday to midnight on Saturday. I can't think of a time when I've ever done that," she said. "I haven't been unplugged in years."



Distinguishable Members Of Congress