Senators Return to D.C. for Brief Sessions

Brief pro forma sessions block prospect of Obama recess appointments.

Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford is among the Republicans who gaveled in a brief session this summer recess. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford is among the Republicans who gaveled in a brief session this summer recess. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:58am

On Tuesday morning, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito opened a Senate session that lasted just 30 seconds.

The West Virginia Republican is one of several GOP senators who have returned to the nation’s capital during the summer to gavel the chamber in and out — essentially a procedural gambit to block President Barack Obama from making any appointments while the Senate is out of town.

Republican lawmakers organized the brief sessions in early spring, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. With Republican leadership vowing not to take up Obama’s nominee for the high court, Judge Merrick Garland, the senators tried to ensure that Obama would not take be able to advantage of the Senate being in recess to fill the court vacancy or other positions.

Obama has said he would not fill Supreme Court vacancy through a recess appointment, but the senators didn’t let their guard down. They simply kept the chamber open, periodically touching down for pro forma sessions.

[No Rest, or Recess, for Senate This Year]

“I think the Supreme Court vacancy made it clear that there’s no way we should just leave that open,” said Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who came back to D.C. to gavel in a session last week. 

Lankford cited Obama appointments to the National Labor Relations Board in 2012 as evidence that the administration could try to do an end run around Congress on some of the more politically contentious appointments. In 2014, the Supreme Court struck down those appointments because the Senate had held pro forma sessions, or brief Senate meetings.

“We were just choosing to say we’re going to do our task, and we do not want the White House to reach in and do recess appointments at the very end of their term,” Lankford said.

[Supreme Court Strikes Down Obama’s Recess Appointments]

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office organized via email which senators would sit in the presiding officer’s chair every three days, according to Lankford.

The senators on duty during the lengthy summer recess include Lankford’s fellow freshman senators, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Capito. Other senators who made the trip back to Washington included Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Lankford used his day to meet with his Washington staff. He also visited Anacostia, a neighborhood in the southeastern part of the city, and met with youths as part of ongoing conversations aimed at reducing poverty.

The Senate is set to return for five weeks next Tuesday. Lankford said he assumed the pro forma sessions will continue when Congress skips town in October.

The tactic has been embraced by Democrats, too. As Senate Majority leader, Harry Reid used pro forma sessions to block recess appointments during the George W. Bush administration in 2007.

According to the Congressional Research Service, Bush made 171 such appointments while his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, made 139. 

Contact Bowman at and follow her on Twitter at @bridgetbhc.