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The Loneliness of the Pro Forma Presiding Officer

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican from nearby Maryland, has presided over at least six pro forma sessions since June.

President Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans are locked in a legal showdown over recess appointments that touches on Constitutional issues at the heart of how the U.S. government is designed.

But behind the headlines, a set of lawmakers have been dutifully gaveling in and gaveling out the pro forma sessions that had, until Jan. 4, kept recess appointments at bay.

Though the sessions, which can last as little as 30 seconds, are not exactly time consuming, they tend to come during weeks when the rest of official Washington is gone, making the job a lonely one.

The August recess and the days around Christmas are particularly unpopular times to occupy the Capitol, but a few lawmakers, often those whose districts are close to D.C., have volunteered.

“I think Members see it as a way to be a good team player and a relatively easy way to build rapport with leadership,” said a House aide whose boss has presided over several pro forma sessions.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) has been a standout, (briefly) wielding the Speaker’s gavel for pro forma sessions at least six times since June, when the House GOP began mimicking a strategy first devised by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) during the George W. Bush administration to block recess appointments.

“Andy has been so great at being kind of, I guess you could say a relief pitcher,” said Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.), who is partly responsible for filling the schedule of who will preside over the sessions.

On March 27, Obama issued 15 recess appointments, including for former AFL-CIO lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board, a pick that had stalled in the Senate.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were eyeing strategies to prevent recess appointments, and a group of Senators proposed a solution.

“Sen. [David] Vitter [R-La.] and Sen. [Jim] DeMint [R-S.C.] and about 20-something other Senators sent us a letter which pointed out a provision in the Constitution that says, ‘listen, if you don’t recess, we can’t recess.’ So if we can’t recess, he can’t make those appointments. Basically pulling the same play out of Harry Reid’s playbook,” Landry said.

Landry organized 77 freshmen to sign a letter vowing they would assist GOP leadership in showing up for the sessions, and Boehner took Landry up on the offer.

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