The Senate was supposed to meet in a brief “pro forma” session at 10 Tuesday morning. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was scheduled to be the only senator present, perfunctorily gaveling the Senate to order and then gaveling out a few minutes later.
But Rubio was delayed. Only Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough and a few other Senate staffers milled about the chamber for the ensuing swatch of time, waiting dutifully for Florida’s senior senator to arrive.
Rubio finally materialized at 12:17 pm. He took his seat on the dais, received brief instructions from MacDonough and then clasped the hourglass-shaped ivory gavel. Rubio rapped the gavel once on the dais.
“The Senate will come to order and the clerk will read a communication to the Senate,” said Rubio.
A Senate clerk then announced that the Senate had in fact designated Rubio “under Rule I, Paragraph 3” to preside over the Senate Tuesday in his capacity as “a senator from the state of Florida.”
The clerk’s boilerplate proclamation about Rubio took more time than anything Rubio said.
“So under the previous order, the Senate stands adjourned until 5 pm on Friday, August 30th, 2019,” said Rubio.
The Florida Republican thumped the gavel again and the Senate concluded its day – two hours, 16 minutes and 28 seconds later than everyone thought Tuesday.
The House has been on the “August recess” since late July. The Senate started its recess a few days later earlier this month. Neither body is slated to return to a bona fide session until September 9. Yet, at least one lawmaker of the majority party has shown up at three-day intervals to perform this quick “gavel in, gavel out” exercise, which consumes about a half a minute in the Senate and only three or four minutes in the House.
There’s a reason why the House and Senate engage in this parliamentary dance during lengthy respites like August, in the spring, Thanksgiving, Christmas and around other holidays.
Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution requires the House and Senate to meet every three days unless they have “Consent of the other” to not get together. If the House and Senate don’t want to convene every three days, both must approve what’s called an “adjournment resolution.” If the House and Senate okay the adjournment resolution, that’s it. Congress could be gone for weeks at a time without anyone showing up to hit the gavel.
It’s de rigueur these days for the House and Senate to eschew an adjournment resolution. Here’s why: Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution gives the President the “Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate.” In other words, if the House and Senate were truly out of session for a prolonged period of time, President Trump could bypass the Senate’s confirmation process on everything from judges to cabinet officials to ambassadors. Those figures would then take office without the Senate’s “advice and consent.”
Democrats control the House now. So, as a defensive move, House Democrats won’t let the Senate adjourn for more than three days and refuses to approve an adjournment resolution. House Republicans took the same approach with President Obama when the GOP was in the majority some years ago.
That compels the House and Senate to huddle in these abridged meetings. After all, “pro forma” is Latin for “a matter of form.” The sessions look like regular get-togethers of the House and Senate. But they’re really not.
That said, it’s not unheard of for the House or Senate to actually conduct some legislative business during what at one point was designed to be a pro forma session. Such was the case earlier this year when the House attempted on three separate occasions to approve a disaster aid bill with just a skeleton staff on hand. The Senate had already passed the plan. The House just needed to sync up. But Reps. Chip Roy (R-TX), Thomas Massie (R-KY) and John Rose (R-TN) surfaced on different days to singularly block the efforts.
Marco Rubio isn’t the only lawmaker to find themselves running behind to preside. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) showed up 18 minutes late to do the honors for 34 seconds during an August 2017 pro forma confab. Paul was stuck in traffic. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) also had trouble getting to Washington for a pro forma session in 2016 following the Republican convention. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) stood in for Lee.
Former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) never made it to a 2008 pro forma session. The Senate allowed then-Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson to preside without a senator present. Fox is told that was an error. Such a figure like the Secretary of Senate might be permitted to preside, provided the Vice President or the President Pro Tempore of the Senate aren’t available. Vice President Pence is President of the Senate. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is the President Pro Tempore, the most senior member of the majority party.
Pro forma sessions sometimes give lawmakers a chance to score some press on important issues of the day.
There was wonder on Capitol Hill if House Democrats may try to do something around the House’s first pro forma session scheduled this month after the massacres in El Paso and Dayton. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) was the lone Democrat to preside over the conclave. Sarbanes went through the standard patter of the pro forma session but made no mention of the shootings. Sarbanes did not address a small contingent of reporters afterward in the hall. Yet that night, the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sent around a press release from the Congressman’s office. The statement proclaimed “Sarbanes Leads Call for Gun Safety Reform.” The release went on to say that “After Presiding Over the U.S. House of Representatives as Speaker Pro Tempore, Congressman Sarbanes Urged Majority Leader McConnell to Pass Bipartisan Gun Safety Measures.”
But, the Sarbanes statement was as “pro forma” as the session earlier in the day. The Congressman made no reference to the shootings from the dais and never spoke to reporters afterward.
So the pro forma sessions will continue. Just not this August and September – but likely into the future. And, they usually happen on time.