Send in the clowns

Yes, Congress Is in Session (for a Few Seconds, Anyway)

By , August 5, 2011


That’s the sound of the gavel smacking down as the people’s business got underway Friday in the United States Senate. It was also the sound, 59 seconds later, of the end of the workday. Mission accomplished!

That’s all the time two senators took to approve an agreement ending a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, which had been left in limbo as Congress left town a few days ago.

To the rest of the world, Congress appears in recess. There are no House members milling about the halls, their tiny badges of office glinting on their lapels, and no senators sitting stiffly on the miniature underground trains that shuttle them from their offices to the floor. Nary a staffer zips madly across the marble floors, eyes trained perilously on a Blackberry, racing to another meeting.

But Congress is actually in pro forma session, so at least one member of each chamber must show up every three days, gavel the session in, and, barring any bits of minor business, bang the gavel a few moments later and head back home.

According to the Constitution, neither chamber of Congress may adjourn for more than three days without permission of the other. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, did not seek a resolution of adjournment this week, because he knew that the House would not go along, lest President Obama grab the opportunity for a recess appointment of any of the many nominees being blocked by Senate Republicans. (It is also likely that Mr. Reid felt no need to highlight his member’s desire to go home.)

“The use of pro forma sessions to block recess appointments is a very recent development,” said Katherine Scott, an assistant historian for the United States Senate Historical Office. “Republicans threatened it with President Clinton in the 1990s, but didn’t use it. Senator Reid was the first to declare, in 2007, that the Senate would hold pro forma sessions to block recess appointments.”

During the pro forma sessions, which generally last from several seconds to a few minutes, no legislation can be transacted without unanimous consent of the kind that Mr. Reid worked out to break the impasse over the F.A.A. The job of handling the gavel generally goes to a member who lives in a nearby state, often someone of low seniority.

On Friday, the gavel was in the hands of Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, while Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, held the floor. Mr. Webb brought up the aviation bill, H.R. 2553, and asked for passage. Mr. Cardin, acting as president pro tempore, asked if anyone objected. (Insert sound of crickets here.) Seconds later, Mr. Cardin swung his tiny gavel and closed up shop.

Things were barely more complex over at the House, which conducted roughly eight minutes of business on Friday. There was the Pledge of Allegiance to be said — largely by a gaggle of pages and a smattering of tourists in the gallery — the reading of a resignation letter of David Wu, the Democrat of Oregon who left the House last week in a sex scandal, and a message from President Obama concerning the signing of the debt ceiling bill. Then, Representative Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican in his first term, banged the gavel and called it a day.

Would he rather have been at the beach? “Oh, no!” Mr. Harris said in an interview a few minutes before presiding. “Today was exciting. I got to sign the F.A.A. extension!”

After spending roughly 30 minutes in the nation’s capital, he was headed for Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “I’ve got a county fair and a steam engine show to get to,” Mr. Harris said.

While the Senate’s session on Friday was shorter than the House’s, it broke no brevity records. The annals of the Senate Historical Office record that in 1989, Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, oversaw a Senate session lasting less than a second. (In fairness, he was the president pro tempore at the time, and could skip a seconds-wasting procedural step in which a legislative clerk reads a letter appointing an acting president pro tempore, which dragged out Mr. Cardin’s moment in the C-SPAN spotlight on Friday.)

The record without the Byrd shortcut is 23 seconds, set by Senator Robert F. Bennett, Republican of Utah, in 2006.

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