Pro forma (Latin for “as a matter of form”) sessions are held to satisfy the constitutional prohibition on either chamber adjourning for more than three days without the consent of the other. The Constitution sets no conditions on the length or productivity of each session; it requires only that the chambers formally meet.
Taking full advantage of this, the Senate consistently concluded its pro forma sessions in less than one minute and conducted no legislative business throughout the seven-week break. The House passed a few housekeeping items by unanimous consent during late September’s pro forma sessions but quickly followed the Senate’s lead and often gaveled in for less than three minutes.
But that’s not to say that all was quiet on Capitol Hill. Democrats, angry that GOP leaders scheduled only eight days of legislative activity between Aug. 3 and Nov. 14, used what limited floor opportunities they had to mount an aggressive messaging campaign, blasting Republicans for leaving Washington, D.C., with a gamut of unfinished business.
Such was the case on Sept. 25, when Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, R-Ohio, recognized Maryland Democrat Donna Edwards’ request for floor time. Reading from prepared remarks, Edwards posed two parliamentary inquiries, which came out less as questions than not-so-subtle barbs.
“For the purposes of a parliamentary inquiry, Democrats are committed to return to Washington to continue the work of the people, and I would ask my Republican colleagues to join us,” Edwards said.
“Sadly, the gentlewoman has not put forward a proper parliamentary inquiry,” responded LaTourette, who then brought the 11-minute session to a close.
Throughout the month of October, Democrats from nearby Maryland and Virginia, as well as from California, Texas, Massachusetts and Missouri consistently attended each session asking to speak on the floor. Their messaging quickly turned into posturing, however, as the Republican chair routinely gaveled out, leaving Democrats little opportunity beyond a bevy of press releases.
During a particularly awkward Oct. 2 pro forma session, Democratic House leaders including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland came to the floor, but Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., gaveled the minutes-long session to a close without granting them time to speak.
At a press conference following the event, a group of 14 Democrats, including Pelosi, Hoyer, Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina and Democratic Caucus Chairman John B. Larson of Connecticut, hammered home their message, using the hashtag #donothingGOP to harangue Republicans for failing to address what they deemed top priorities, including the Violence Against Women Act, the farm bill, a Democratic jobs bill, expiring tax rates and the looming sequestration.
The same show played out on Oct. 16, when Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., and Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo., came to the floor intending to ask GOP leaders to deal with looming sequestration cuts, but Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., gaveled out without recognizing either member.
Not all pro formas spurred such partisan tensions, however. Some were positively congenial, as was the case on Oct. 23 when LaTourette closed the minutes-long pro forma without recognizing Connolly’s request for floor time. The two members then shook hands, hugged and left the chamber chatting merrily.
Other pro forma sessions showcased a bit of intraparty drama. On Oct. 12, Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., presided over the minutes-long session at the behest of House leadership, just one day after allegations surfaced that the pro-life Republican doctor had encouraged a patient he slept with to have an abortion in 2000 and on the same day he was scheduled to debate his Democratic challenger in Tennessee’s 4th district.
Some excitement transcended politics altogether. In the wake of superstorm Sandy and amid continued power outages, limited rail operations and federal office closures, the House and Senate convened on Oct. 30 in delayed pro forma sessions, each lasting less than 2 minutes. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, presided in the Senate, and LaTourette was present in the House.
LaTourette, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, presided over pro formas more than any other House member during the seven-week recess. He was asked by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to gavel in the Nov. 6 Election Day pro forma session.
“The real issue is he’s retiring,” said Dino DiSanto, LaTourette’s chief of staff. “His ability to do it is much easier than other individuals who are running for re-election.”
In the days leading up to Nov. 6, Democrats were notably absent from the House floor, their qualms with GOP leaders seeming to fade in the run-up to the elections.
With little fanfare during Friday’s final pro forma, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., brought the session to a close as both parties braced for what is likely to be a jam-packed lame-duck session. No Democrats were present on Friday.
The House is scheduled to reconvene Tuesday at 2 p.m. and will likely consider several bills under suspension of the rules.