The question is not why they were gone so long amidst recession and myriad problems from deficits and tax rates to housing and energy.
We know why they were gone. Congress always takes most of August off and many members spend a lot of that time connecting to folks back home — especially in election years such as this one.
The question is why they came back.
Did they come back because they wanted to accomplish something in the remaining weeks before the election? Or did they come back just to continue the politicking that has dominated the Hill in recent months in anticipation of that election?
It's a bipartisan question.
For the majority Democrats, of course, the question is most acute. As members of the party officially in power in difficult times, they have the onus of responsibility. That goes for the economy and every other source of voter dissatisfaction. So how should they use these final weeks before the reckoning with the voters?
Should they scramble to pass President Obama's latest $50 billion stab at stimulating the economy? Many think so, although they cringe at the thought of calling it a stimulus. The last package so described may have done substantial good — or not. But so far at least it has inspired far more derision than praise.
And what about the Bush tax cuts the Democrats mostly opposed back in 2001 and 2003? Now they are loath to let them expire, which would give Republicans a chance to hang a tax increase around their necks at a time when high unemployment is the dominant issue in the land.
Republicans have an easier time, not being held responsible for much of anything these days. But they still face their own version of the question: What are you doing here?
Plenty of Republicans would be as happy NOT to be in Washington. In the House, at least, they are unlikely to determine or even alter the course of any legislation. Under more normal circumstances, they might look forward to close votes on some of the spending bills that regularly dominate floor debate in the days before the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. This is not a normal year, and most expect the spending bills to be postponed until after the election. Funding will flow in the meantime through the continuing resolution mechanism, a familiar fallback in times of partisan standoff.
But if we are going to keep the federal government open by such means for the foreseeable future, there's little need for Republicans to drop by and watch. So why are they here?
Turns out there's an animating debate in Republican ranks as well.
Should the minority party hold out for an extension of the Bush tax cuts of 2001-03 for all taxpayers, regardless of income? Is it worth the potential political fallout of holding hostage the lower tax rates of those making less than $250,000 so as to protect those of the top 3%?
House Republican leader John Boehner said this past weekend that while his preferred choice is to extend the cuts for all taxpayers, he could see voting for legislation that preserves them only for the middle class — if that's the only choice he's given.
But there may be some in his party who see this as a compromise, and in the mood of the moment no compromise will be popular with the most resistant conservatives. Already, in fact, a spokesman for Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell has said Republicans in that chamber are firmly against any plan that excludes the wealthy from an extension of the tax breaks.
Some Republicans may argue that Boehner is simply trying to outmaneuver the White House on the tax-the-rich issue — refusing to be nailed to it as a kind of sacrifice.
Boehner is clearly aware that the White House has targeted him for his ties to the old line Republican country-club image and his association with corporate powers. If he can be vilified in the weeks leading up to Nov. 2, perhaps the Democratic base can be re-energized and a few populist independents can be lured back to their votes of 2006 and 2008.
It's a bit of long shot, and a late one at that, but it may be the best shot the Democrats are going to see before November.