What are Pro Forma Sessions in Congress?

And Why They Often Cause Controversy

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The US Capitol Dome weathers many storms and pro forma sessions. Getty Images News

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, ans why do they sometimes stir up political firestorms?

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.

Also See: What is a ‘Lame Duck’ Session of Congress?

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.

Also See: Presidential Appointments Not Requiring Senate Approval

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.