To C-SPAN viewers, Tuesday’s House session opened just like any other: A Republican took the chair to gavel in the session, the dais was full of staffers and the chaplain opened with an invocation commemorating the chamber’s page program.
But expand the camera angle a bit, and the scene is anything but business as usual.
The floor is bereft of other members of the House, the public viewing galleries are almost empty, and Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina soon taps the gavel again, closing shop without a single bit of business transpiring. Total time in session: four minutes.
Welcome to pro forma session — the abbreviated meetings that House Republicans have scheduled twice a week for the rest of August, while members of Congress are on summer recess. An obscure constitutional provision also means the Senate must convene regularly throughout the summer. Because the two chambers are in session, President Obama has no chance to make recess appointments of controversial nominees.
Article I, Section 5, Clause 4 of the Constitution says no chamber can be out of session for more than three days without the consent of the other chamber.
The intent, all sides agree, was to try to keep one chamber from shutting down the government by adjourning.
“Throughout the August recess, my colleagues and I will preside over pro forma sessions in the House — preventing congressional recess and presidential recess appointments,” said Rep. Jeffrey M. Landry, a Louisiana Republican who helped organize the effort. It requires one lawmaker to return to Washington every few days to preside, just as Mr. Duncan did on Tuesday.
At issue is the president’s power to name top positions in his administration. Nominations normally must be confirmed by the Senate, but the president can make a recess appointment if the Senate is out of session.
The power was designed for the early years of the republic, when citizen lawmakers were the norm, Congress was in session sparingly, and the president otherwise might have waited months for an adviser to be confirmed.
In recent years, however, the constitutional clause has been used as an end-run around the Senate, where the rules allow 41 senators to block confirmations.
That has made even the decision to take recesses partisan affairs.
In 2007 and 2008, Democrats regularly kept the Senate in repeated pro forma sessions to deny President Bush the chance to make recess appointments.
In 2009 and 2010, Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. Mr. Obama made use of congressional recesses to make appointments, including that of Donald Berwick as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which will oversee a large portion of his health care initiative.View Entire Story
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Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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