Trying to survive a summer in Washington D.C. without air conditioning is nothing short of brutal. Which is part of the reason why Congress, even with their dismal approval ratings and lackluster track record at passing meaningful legislation, takes five weeks off to get out of the city every August. But lawmakers spending as much time as they do in D.C., and the government spending as much money as they do on governing is a relatively recent trend, thanks in no small part to the advent of AC making life in Washington that much more tolerable.
Until the 20th century, being a member of Congress was very much a part time job. Lawmakers would come to Capitol Hill for six months out of the year, with the rest of their time being spent at home, farming or lawyering or practicing whatever their real profession was.
This all changed when AC, first invented in 1902, was installed in the House of Representatives in 1928, with the Senate quickly following suit. The White House got AC in 1929, and as a result President Herbert Hoover decided to spend his summer working in Washington, rather than retreating to his summer home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The spread of air conditioning in federal offices caused an immediate uptick in worker productivity. Before Washingtonians were frequently sent home due to rising temperatures, sometimes resulting in tens of thousands of employees spending weeks off at a time due to the heat. The heat was so bad in government buildings that there was actually official criteria used in the summer to determine when the office would close for a heat day, similar to the way office closings are announced for a snow day. If the temperature plus 20 percent of the humidity level reached 100, you got the day off.
In 1955 the federal government conducted a study that found that productivity increased by as much as 24 percent when office buildings were equipped with AC. As a result the General Services Administration spent $181 million to retrofit most federal building with air conditioning.
The result of this seemingly simply upgrade was staggering, and the effects are noticeable in Washington to this day. The number of staffers and aides working in Congressional offices is six times higher today than in the 1950s, and eight new cabinet departments have been created. Since the turn of the century when AC was first invented, federal spending per capita is 55 times higher than it was.
It’s not completely fair to give air conditioning all the credit for the building of the Beltway. But it’s obvious that if there were no reprieve from the Washington humidity lawmakers would want to spend as little time in the District as possible, and getting a federal job in D.C. would be a much less desirable career move.