British Prime Minister Boris Johnson prorogued Parliament.
This is the term of art the British use when Parliament is suspended for a period.
The prorogue was a defensive move by Johnson to keep efforts at bay to derail his plan to yank the United Kingdom out of the European Union without a formal agreement. A “hard Brexit,” if you will.
So, Johnson essentially halted the session so Members of Parliament couldn’t offer legislative alternatives to his Brexit maneuver – or even call a vote of no-confidence against him. This upended the current parliamentary session which has run since June of 2017. It’s the longest such parliamentary convocation in 400 years.
But, Parliament wasn’t dissolved. It’s been on a kind of extended recess for a while.
The U.S. House and Senate have been gone for a while, too. No proroguing on Capitol Hill though – unless it’s willful. Congress is instead on the customary “August recess,” – even though it’s now September. The respite started in late July for the House. Early August for the Senate. Congress often reconvenes right after Labor Day. But not this year. Few lawmakers will surface in Washington until September 9.
The House and Senate resisted calls to reconvene in August and early September, despite mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton – followed by the melee in Odessa and Midland, TX. The House decided against returning to Washington. Democrats decided instead to ramp up attention on what many Democrats described as “inaction” by the Senate on gun measures. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) declined to summon senators back to Washington to work on firearms issues. McConnell knew it would be a challenge to advance anything on guns.
Much has been made about Johnson’s proroguing gambit in the United Kingdom. When leaders prorogue Parliament, it’s often suspended for a just few days. Not weeks. But even though there is no “prorogue” phenomenon in Congress, there are some similarities on Capitol Hill.
Congress has taken an August vacation for decades now. In 1963, the Senate met year-round, only breaking for weekends. But jet travel became easier, connecting lawmakers with the far-flung districts and states they represent. Media bolstered the importance of lawmakers returning regularly to home turf to conduct events, meet with constituents and “be seen.”
A Congressional “reorganization” in the 1970s recommended the establishment of the contemporary August recess, stretching from the end of July until just after Labor Day. Congress has stuck to the “August recess” concept for the most part. But it’s not unheard of for lawmakers to toil in Washington through the dog days of August. Such was the case with the 1994 crime bill (which barred assault weapons). Congress returned to Washington with a skeleton crew to approve emergency aid after Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005. McConnell gamely declared he was “cancelling” the August recess last year. But it turned out that senators were only in Washington for a few days.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) control the House schedule. They could always summon the House back to session if necessary. But frankly, the leaders know it’s important to protect their majority and get vulnerable freshman Democrats back to their districts during this time. The House would not break the recess unless there was a big emergency. After the shootings, Democrats scheduled a House Judiciary Committee meeting for this week this to prepare gun legislation for later in the month. But the panel called off the session due to the threat of Hurricane Dorian in Florida and along the eastern seaboard.
Pelosi & company really didn’t want the House to meet over the past five weeks. The Speaker sent out a memo imploring Democrats to “own August” by discussing health care and economic issues.
Perhaps more importantly, the vacation helped Democrats ignore questions about impeachment and the investigations of President Trump. While more than half of all Democrats now support impeachment or some sort of an impeachment “inquiry,” they are a far cry from having the votes to impeach the President. This reflects the Democrats “both ways” strategy. Democrats continue to apply pressure on Mr. Trump and probe the possibility of impeachment. That helps Democrats with their leftist base. It simultaneously inoculates Democrats who oppose impeachment. Meantime, Democrats investigate a slate of other alleged misdeeds involving the Trump Administration. The House’s summer interlude probably aided Pelosi and many other Democrats by not having to address impeachment on a daily basis.
Mitch McConnell is probably glad the Senate was on hiatus, too. McConnell’s public statements about the shootings indicate he’s skeptical there’s anything on which the House, Senate and President Trump can agree when with guns. The Senate may have a slate of nominations McConnell still wants to tackle. But the Kentucky Republican doesn’t have a lot of other legislative traffic teed up. So, many senators are also content the Senate hasn’t been in session much lately. There’s nothing worse than having lawmakers in Washington with little to do. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to do on big issues. However, there’s a reason why the legislative docket is thin: the sides lack agreement. There isn’t going to be a magical solution to disputes about infrastructure or health care. So, why try? That’s why the Senate is more than happy to be on leave for weeks.
The circus will come back to town next week. The House will brawl over investigations and impeachment. The sides must forge a deal to fund the government past September 30. There will be discussions about guns. The House will likely even pass a bill or two related to firearms. It’s unclear if anything would happen in the Senate. And in the background, negotiations continue on the new trade pact between the United States, Canada and Mexico. That measure is nowhere close to passage yet.
So no proroguing of the legislature here. But, for all intents and purposes, Congress was “suspended” for the past few weeks, much like in the United Kingdom. However, there is one major difference. When lawmakers in Washington return to work, they’ll start again without a speech by the Queen.