WASHINGTON - It's not quite the August exodus from Paris, but the fizz and crackle grows quiet in Washington this time of year and America's political heart beats far more slowly. Lawmakers have repaired to home districts and President Barack Obama is spending his fourth summer holiday on the tony island of Martha's Vineyard.
The fire beneath Washington's cauldron of political invective is down to a simmer; The stately halls of the Capitol are largely silent. Tourists still peer through the black metal bars of the White House fence, unaware, perhaps, that all the Obamas, even dog Bo, have left.
Smatterings of political pot-shots shatter the quiet, mostly from around the 50 states as members of Congress try to keep their political ranks fired up for the ideological battle to resume next month. When the weather cools in the famously humid capital, a series of prickly issues await about America's economic pathway.
Deeply conservative Republicans, especially the party's tea party wing, will be putting up a renewed fight to prevent an increase in the government's borrowing power. A tussle over the debt ceiling — an issue that in less partisan times slid through Congress without debate —caused the U.S. credit rating to be lowered for the first time ever in 2011. A last minute deal prevented the country from defaulting on its bills that time around.
A storm over the budget is also brewing. Some of the more conservative Republicans, determined to unravel Obama's signature health care overhaul, are threatening to use congressional power over the purse strings to force a government shutdown if Democrats don't agree to big cuts from money to implement the program. A struggle over snarled immigration reform legislation also looms.
As is often the case, foreign affairs intrude on the August torpor. Obama was forced to interrupt his vacation this week address the violence in Egypt, where more than 600 people have died in a crackdown on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. Obama cancelled plans for joint American-Egyptian military exercises and warned that continued fighting would lead Egypt down a "dangerous path."
Back in Washington, many locals just want the August lull to end. Washington is a one-industry city where nearly everyone depends on politics for their livelihood.
Cab driver Azizi Faiz said business drops off dramatically in August. He claimed by as much as 50 per cent.
"It's like fishing. Most days you end up catching a sardine and throwing it back. Some days there's a good catch, and that keeps you going. We're like school teachers," he said. "We stretch nine months of pay over the whole year."
The tourists don't help. "They take the shuttle buses or walk," Faiz said.
Ashok Bajaj owns eight restaurants in Washington, some of the top eateries in the city that is an increasingly serious food destination. About three decades ago, he began with a classy Indian food place, The Bombay Club, a couple of blocks from the White House.
"When I opened and then July and August came around, I said, "Wow, restaurants only have six months of life. I didn't know everybody disappeared in summer and didn't come back until the middle of September."
He estimates business falls off as much as 15 per cent in the high summer months, despite the tourists who continue flocking in to absorb U.S. history and the Smithsonian system of free museums. The average cost of a hotel room drops from $230 in May to about $150 in August. Hotel occupancy drops from nearly 86 per cent in May to 75 per cent in August.
"My restaurants tend to be a bit more refined, fine dining. The people off the street tend to just come in to look around," he said.
Otherwise, he said, "everybody goes away. The journalists go away. The New York Times is next to the Bombay Club, and 50 per cent of those people are gone. The White House goes away when the president is gone. All the executive offices are empty.
"All the IMF and World Bank people go away for a month to vacation in the countries they come from. The lobbyists go away. Congress is closed," Bajaj said. "It's the nature of the business, the nature of the city."
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