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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.

“After we sent the letter to the Speaker’s office, they contacted us and said, ‘Listen, we think this is a great idea. But, you know, if you want this, you’re going to have to be willing to help us out in organizing the schedule,’” Landry said.

Enter Harris, who, given the proximity of his home to the Capitol, was happy to help. “If we’ve had some trouble filling the schedule, Andy always said, ‘Look, just call me,’” Landry said.

“If there’s no traffic, it’s about an hour and a quarter” to drive in, Harris said. “When I preside, I usually ask them not to schedule them for 10 a.m., because I know I’d be driving through rush hour, certainly on the Baltimore end.”

“Obviously, freshman Members aren’t going to chair major committees, aren’t going to serve major roles. But this is one way that you can do something for the team that helps them out,” Harris said.

On one occasion, Harris’s proximity prevented a parliamentary problem. The Member scheduled to preside couldn’t make it, and Harris was forced to cancel a district event and rush to the Capitol.

Though Harris has presided over the most pro forma sessions in the 112th Congress, the cast of lawmakers willing to preside over an empty House floor is surprisingly diverse, geographically speaking.

Freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, from far-away California, has gaveled three of the sessions in and out. “He’s taken an interest in these recess appointments,” Landry said.

And a cast of Ohioans, including Reps. Steven LaTourette, Steve Stivers and Jim Jordan, have reported for duty as well.

The strategy of pro forma sessions to block recess appointments originated with Reid in the Senate. So on the other side of the aisle, the self-sacrificing Members tend to come from the upper chamber.

In 2007, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) took Christmas duty, presiding over pro forma sessions on Dec. 21, 23 and 26. “I strongly believe in the U.S. Senate’s constitutional oversight role,” he said in a release at the time.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) was on Christmas duty in 2008 and Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) was a big help during that year’s August recess, presiding over several sessions.

On the House side, Maryland Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards have helped preside over short sessions during recess, as has Virginia Rep. Jim Moran, when Democrats controlled that chamber.

And it’s been Edwards and Moran who have led Democrats’ protests in past weeks as they clamor for Congress to extend the payroll tax holiday.

When she came into the Capitol on Jan. 6, Edwards said, “I thought it was a work day,” a point somewhat deflated when a reporter noted she was familiar with the process having presided over pro forma sessions when her party was in power.

“Obviously, there are never more than a handful of Democrats in town to quote-unquote do the work,” Harris said.

But Democrats point out Republican ironies as well.

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