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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.