Do you indeed speak righteousness, O gods? Do you judge uprightly, O sons of men? No, in heart you work unrighteousness; on earth you weigh out the violence of your hands. The wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth…
FAA shutdown ends with lightning quick session in Congress
To the rest of the world, Congress appears in recess. But it is 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 business, bang it out and a few moments later head back home.
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — “Thonk!”
That’s the sound of the gavel smacking down as the people’s business began Friday in the U.S. 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 (FAA), which had been left in limbo after 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, 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 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 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. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, did not seek a resolution of adjournment this week, because he knew 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.
“The use of pro forma sessions to block recess appointments is a very recent development,” said Katherine Scott, an assistant historian for the U.S. Senate Historical Office. “Republicans threatened it with President Clinton in the 1990s, but didn’t use it. Sen. 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 Reid worked out to break the impasse over the FAA. 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 Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., while Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., held the floor. Webb brought up the aviation bill, HR 2553, and asked for passage. Cardin, acting as president pro tempore, asked if anyone objected. (Insert sound of crickets here.) Seconds later, 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 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, D-Ore., who left the House in a sex scandal, and a message from Obama concerning the signing of the debt-ceiling bill. Then, Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican in his first term, banged the gavel and called it a day.
While the Senate’s session Friday was shorter than the House’s, it broke no brevity records. The annals of the Senate Historical Office record that in 1989, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., 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 Cardin’s moment in the C-SPAN spotlight Friday.
The record without the Byrd shortcut is 23 seconds, set by Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, in 2006.