What Are Pro Forma Sessions in Congress?

Pro Forma Sessions in Congress and Why They Often Cause Controversy

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In the daily agendas of the House of Representatives and Senate, you will often see that House or Senate leaders have scheduled a “pro forma” session for the day. What is a pro forma session, what is its purpose, and why do they sometimes stir up political firestorms?

Key Takeaways: Pro Forma Sessions

  • Pro forma sessions are meetings of the U.S. Congress held “in form only.” Either house of Congress can hold pro forma sessions.
  • During pro forma sessions, no votes are taken and no other legislative business is conducted.
  • Pro forma sessions are held for the purpose of meeting the “three-day rule” in Article I, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution. The three day rule prohibits either chamber of Congress from not meeting for more than three consecutive calendar days during a congressional session without the approval of the other chamber.

The term pro forma is a Latin term meaning “as a matter of form” or “for the sake of form.” While either chamber of Congress can hold them, pro forma sessions are most often held in the Senate.

Typically, no legislative business, such as the introduction or debate on bills or resolutions, is conducted during a pro forma session. As a result, pro forma sessions rarely last more than a few minutes from gavel-to-gavel.

There are no constitutional restrictions on how long pro forma sessions must last or what business may be conducted in them.

While any Senator or Representative present can open and preside over a pro forma session, the attendance of other members is not required. Indeed, most pro forma sessions are conducted before nearly empty chambers of Congress. 

A Senator or Representative from one of the nearby states of Virginia, Maryland or Delaware is usually chosen to preside over pro forma sessions since members from other states have usually left Washington, D.C. for vacations or meeting with constituents in their home districts or states.

The Official Purpose of Pro Forma Sessions

The officially stated purpose for pro forma sessions is to comply with Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution, which prohibits either chamber of Congress from adjourning for more than three consecutive calendar days without the consent of the other chamber. Scheduled long-term breaks provided for in the annual legislative calendars for sessions of Congress, such as the summer breaks and district work periods are typically provided for by the passage in both chambers of a joint resolution declaring the adjournment.

However, the numerous unofficial reason for holding pro forma sessions of Congress often results in controversy and politically hurt feelings.

The More Controversial Purpose of Pro Forma Sessions

While doing so never fails to raise controversy, the minority party in the Senate often holds pro forma sessions specifically to prevent the President of the United States from making “recess appointments” of persons to fill vacancies in federal offices that require the approval of the Senate.

The president is allowed under Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution to make recess appointments during recesses or adjournments of Congress. Persons appointed by recess appointments assume their position without the approval of the Senate but must be confirmed by the Senate before the end of the next session of Congress, or when the position again becomes vacant.

As long as the Senate meets in pro forma sessions, Congress never officially adjourns, thus blocking the president from making recess appointments.

However, in 2012, President Barak Obama made four recess appointments during Congress’ winter break, despite a run of daily pro forma sessions called by Senate Republicans. Obama argued at the time that pro forma sessions do not block the president’s “constitutional authority” to make appointments. Despite being challenged by Republicans, Obama’s recess appointees were eventually confirmed by the Democrat-controlled Senate.

During August 2017, the Senate held nine pro forma sessions to block Republican President Donald Trump from making recess appointments during Congress’ annual summer break. Senate Democrats, joined by some moderate Republicans, worried that Trump might dismiss then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and appoint his replacement during the month-long recess. At the same time, Trump had hinted that he might also appoint a new secretary of Homeland Security to replace John Kelly, who he had named his new chief of staff of July 31. The nine pro forma sessions—none lasting over one-minute, had been scheduled on August 3 by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. However, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that the sessions were not intended to block recess appointments. “To meet our constitutional requirement of meeting every few days, we’re doing pro formas. We didn’t do it to block Trump,” McConnell’s aide said.

Effectively protected by the pro forma sessions, Attorney General Jeff Sessions went on to hold his post until November 7, 2018, when President Trump requested and got his resignation. Sessions had earlier angered Trump by refusing to place restrictions on the range of Special Counsel and former FBI director Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential election had been escalating at time.