Senators Can Decide When To Take A Break

Senators return to Washington next week after a truncated August recess. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced the change in plans after a number of Republicans called for canceling the month-long break altogether to gain more time to fund the government and confirm President Trump’s nominees. In a May letter, sixteen senators informed McConnell of their support for doing so, writing that they were willing to “work nights and weekends and forego the August recess” if needed to complete action on these items.

A similar effort also resulted in the Senate delaying the start of the August recess last summer. Then, ten senators wrote McConnell to “respectfully request that you consider truncating, if not completely foregoing, the scheduled August state work period, allowing us more time to complete our work.” And while senators have long-considered the August recess as an opportunity to spend time with their families away from the heat and humidity of the nation’s capital, the letter’s signatories reassured McConnell that their “request is fully backed by our commitment to thoughtfully and diligently work through these issues.”

These twin efforts provide an opportunity to consider the mechanics of how the Senate decides to take a break and what, if any, role its majority leader plays in the process. When considered solely in the context of the Senate's rules and precedents, asking the majority leader to keep the Senate in session is an unnecessary obeisance. Such requests are not required by the procedures governing the adjournment process. Taken together, both letters reflect a misguided, yet persistent, assumption among the Senate's members, as well as among interested observers of its actions, that the majority leader is more powerful than he really is. In reality, there is nothing in the Senate’s Standing Rules or its precedents authorizing the majority leader to decide when the institution adjourns. All senators play an equal role in making that decision.


Motion to Adjourn Mechanics

In almost all circumstances, the Senate adjourns on motion. While members may move to adjourn the Senate at any point, they instead defer to the majority leader (or his designee) to do so for their own convenience. Still, members retain their prerogative to make a motion to adjourn during the Senate’s working hours. And even when they defer to the majority leader to do so, members still have the responsibility to vote yes or no when confronted with the question on the Senate floor. (Note: The Senate may also take a break as a result of a successful motion to recess. The underlying mechanics of the motions to recess and adjourn are almost identical, though their consequences differ. For that reason, only the motion to adjourn is considered here.)


Under Rule XXII, the motion to adjourn has precedence over all other motions (to recess, proceed to the consideration of executive business, table, postpone, commit, and amend). It is almost always in order. Senators may make a motion to adjourn if they have been recognized by the Presiding Officer (i.e. Chair) and are thus in possession of the floor. A motion to adjourn is not in order while the Journal is being read, during a roll call vote, or when a unanimous consent order providing for an adjournment/recess has been agreed to by all senators. A motion to adjourn is in order at all other times, provided a quorum is present (and that business has intervened since the last motion to adjourn).

Motions to adjourn are not debatable. That means they cannot be filibustered. Instead, a vote is triggered immediately after a senator makes the motion. According to the Senate's precedents, points of order and appeals from the decision of the Chair are also non-debatable. Consequently, a simple majority of the Senate’s members, not the leader’s permission, is all that is needed to successfully adjourn the institution.

A motion to adjourn may take one of two forms. (Note: These two forms relate only to motions. Adjourning pursuant to a concurrent resolution passed by the House and Senate is not considered here.) Simple motions simply adjourn the Senate. Riddick’s Senate Procedure includes a sample script for the motion (p. 2). To make a simple motion, a senator would say, “Mr. President, I move that the Senate adjourn.”

A senator may also move to adjourn the Senate to a date certain (or that when the Senate adjourns it be to a date certain). A sample script for a date-certain motion to adjourn can also be found in Riddick’s (p. 9). To make a date-certain motion, a senator would say, “Mr. President, I move that the Senate do now adjourn until ___ next (or ___ a.m./p.m. tomorrow).”

Simple motions cannot be amended. Date-certain motions can be amended. In the latter case, amendments are limited to changing the date until which the Senate stands in adjournment. As with the underlying motion, any amendments considered are non-debatable. Finally, a senator cannot amend a simple motion to make it a date-certain motion.


All Senators Are Equal

This review of the mechanics of the motion to adjourn demonstrates that the majority leader's power to decide when the Senate will be in session and when it will take a break ultimately depends on the continued deference of the rank-and-file. Consequently, members do not need the majority leader’s permission to keep the Senate in session. By seeking the leader’s approval for shortening the August recess, senators reinforce the perception that it is his decision to make. While there is certainly a case to be made for sending the 2017 and 2018 letters to McConnell based on intraparty dynamics, they are by no means necessary. Senators should be careful to avoid demeaning their own institutional standing vis-à-vis their leaders. Instead of asking permission, the rank-and-file should tell their leaders when they want to work and when they want to take a break.