The joke in conservative circles for years has been that the most important part of the Bill of Rights is the first five words: “Congress shall make no law.” So rare is it that Democrats would convene a special session of the Senate not only for the express purpose of not passing any laws, but rather, for the purpose of keeping anything else from happening either.
But that was the case over the holiday last week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid arranged for “pro-forma” Senate sessions to be held to prevent the executive branch from making recess appointments. Law allows the president to make temporary appointments to government and judicial positions at times when Congress is in recess for three or more days. Currently, the Bush administration has about 190 nominations pending in the Senate, so you can see why this would be tempting. Further, a number of Bush’s more controversial appointments — such as John Bolton’s to the United Nations — have been the result of recess appointments. In Bush’s defense, a few outstanding nominations are understandable, but perhaps recess appointments wouldn’t be so tempting without a backlog of 190.
This unusual situation has resulted in one of the more embarrassing procedural maneuvers Congress has seen in a while. And during Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, the embarrassing-procedural-maneuver-bar has been set so high that, much like Dave Fosbury at the 1968 Olympics, one almost has to invent new parliamentary techniques to clear it.
Reid’s solution to this impasse was to call pro-forma sessions. That is, a single senator would show up Tuesday, Wednesday, and the Friday after Thanksgiving, bang the gavel, wait 30 seconds, end of session. Nothing accomplished, but the executive branch remains stymied and the federal government remains understaffed. (If such a thing is possible in the current Leviathan.)
What’s more, Democrats’ saw this as a media opportunity. CNN camera crews followed Jim Webb into the Senate on Wednesday. “This is the first time coming to work actually makes news,” Senator Jim Webb, responsible for banging Wednesday’s gavel, told the cameras. You know what would also make news, Senator Webb? Doing actual work. In case you were wondering, here’s the status of all the appropriations bills: We’re well into the new fiscal year and it looks like Democrats are moving things along at a glacial pace.
Of course, Webb told CNN, “I have been enormously frustrated over the past six years at how this administration has inappropriately pushed the envelope of executive power.” Ah yes, if there were only some legal document that explained how the Senate could place a check on the Executive power to appoint high-level government positions without such petty maneuvers as “pro-forma” sessions. Regrettably, you’ll have to get past the first five words in the Bill of Rights, but I’m sure the requirement that the Senate actually hold an up or down vote to confirm nominees is in the Constitution somewhere.
Still, one doesn’t pass up the chance to witness such numb-skullery, so I trudged down to the Senate to witness democracy in action, on the Friday after Thanksgiving. White-knuckling my pen and notebook, it would prove to be the longest 29 seconds of my life. The following takes place between 10:00:03 and 10:00:32 A.M.:
10:00:03 — And we’re off. Considering how short this session is, the Senate should have opted for a starter’s pistol rather than a gavel.
10:00:07 — The stenographer is actually standing. This definitely won’t take long.
10:00:10 — You know they say the average male is supposed to think about sex every seven seconds? Here we are, seven seconds into this riveting Senate session, and I haven’t thought about sex at all — or does thinking about thinking about sex count? Wait. Dang it.
10:00:11 — Aside from Dorgan, there are about a dozen staffers down on the floor. What could they possibly all be doing?
10:00:15 — I bet the staffers hangout and drink in the Senate chamber when this is over. Rumor has it Senate staffers play a game of “Hyannisport Easter Egg Hunt.” They blindfold each other and the first one to find the desk where Ted Kennedy hides his break-in-case-of-emergency bottle of Chivas wins. Then what usually happens is that they get schnockered and reminisce about how they first got hooked on politics, like that time in high school when they discovered they could use their student council “access” to sneak coffee from the teachers’ lounge.
10:00:18 — They’re actually reading some sort of boiler plate into the record, though they’re doing it auctioneer fast to come in under 30 seconds. What would they be auctioning? The American soul? Everything must go!
10:00:22 — There was no session yesterday because of the holiday, and on Wednesday Jim Webb drew the short straw to bang the Gavel because he’s from Virginia and has a short commute to get back in time for the Holiday. So why is Dorgan here all the way from North Dakota the day after Thanksgiving? I’ll just check the weather report in Bismarck…nevermind.
10:00:25 — So the Friday before last, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn’t open the floor to votes on Republican tax cuts. Even though doing so would mean that despite months of warnings the Senate still wouldn’t get around to “patching” the non-inflation adjusted Alternative Minimum Tax so that middle class families wouldn’t get socked with a monstrous tax bill. So while the AMT probably will be patched, because Reid dithered after being warned for months about this problem, now the IRS has announced that they have to delay your tax refund by ten weeks because changes in the system can’t be processed this late. And what, about a third of all tax refunds go straight back into consumer spending? That should be great for the economy in the midst of a slumping real estate market and credit crunch. Seems like a great time to plunge us into depression over a procedural matter. But hey, I’m glad you came to work for 30 seconds to make sure that someone doesn’t temporarily end up on the sixth circuit court who is puzzled by the fact that the words “right to an abortion” are nowhere in the constitution. Working hard, or hardly workin’ Harry?
10:00:27 — Speaking of working hard, or hardly working — are 30-second sessions what Democrats mean when they announced Congress would have a shorter workweek next year? They made such a big deal about lengthening the workweek when they took over last year.
10:00:29 — There are about a dozen tourists in the gallery today. Looks like a couple of families — thank God for dutiful American parents, no doubt using this historic opportunity to instill the proper amount of skepticism and disillusionment in the political process. Get ‘em while they’re young.
10:00:31 — The. Suspense. Isn’t. Killing. Me.
10:00:32 — “underthepreviousorderthesenatestandsinrecessuntiltuesdaynovemberthetwenty-sixthatninea.m.” [GAVEL]
And like that it was over. All that was missing was Harry Reid in flightsuit standing behind a huge banner that said “Nothing Accomplished.” As for the rest of us, well, I beheld the Senate, and, lo, it was without form, and void; and the citizens they had no light. I wait, on pins and needles, for what Reid and Pelosi have in store next.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.