The rare earthquake that rattled Washington wasn’t the only bit of history that was made Tuesday.
When Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) presided over a brief session of the Senate in a basement conference room of a building near Union Station on Tuesday afternoon, it marked the first time in nearly 200 years that the body had met outside of the Senate chamber in a non-ceremonial session, according to the U.S. Senate Historical Office.
Technically, Coons was presiding over a “pro forma” session – the brief meetings that both chambers have been holding throughout the August break during which few members are present and no legislative business is typically conducted. Aside from Coons, the only others present during Tuesday’s session were about 50 to 60 staffers and Capitol Police officers as well as a handful of reporters.
Even so, the 22-second meeting was the first non-ceremonial session since 1814 to be held off the Capitol grounds.
According to Dr. Katherine Scott, an assistant historian with the U.S. Senate Historical Office, the last time the Senate met outside its chamber on the north side of the Capitol was nine years ago, on Sept. 6, 2002, when both chambers held a joint session at New York City’s Federal Hall to mark the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
A similar session was held by both chambers at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on July 16, 1987, to mark the bicentennial of the Great Compromise, the agreement that established the dual system by which states are represented by senators and House members in Congress.
Both of those sessions were ceremonial in nature, however. The last time a non-ceremonial session was held outside the Senate chamber was in 1814, when the Senate convened at Blodgett’s Hotel on Eighth and E streets NW for several months after British troops had set fire to the Capitol. The blaze occurred nearly 197 years ago from the date of Tuesday’s earthquake, on Aug. 24, 1814.
Members later met for four years at a temporary structure when today’s Supreme Court building sits, according to the Senate Historical Office.
The House met in a pro forma session in its usual chamber Tuesday morning, hours before the earthquake hit. Like the Senate, the House has held few off-site sessions; the chamber met at the same venue as the Senate after the War of 1812. House members also met in the Ways and Means Committee Room in the Longworth House Office Building from 1949 to 1951, while the House chamber was under renovation.
Coons said Tuesday that he was impressed with how quickly the Senate floor staff, Capitol Police and others were able to arrange for the off-site session to be conducted.
“I think one of the things that should instill some confidence in the American people is that even in the midst of an earthquake, quickly, professionally, we were able to relocate and conduct the business of the Senate today,” he told reporters at an impromptu news conference at Upper Senate Park.
The room in the basement of the Postal Square Building had been "prepared for off-site briefings in the event of an emergency," Coons said. By mutual consent of the Senate majority and minority leaders, the off-site session was approved; then, Senate floor staffers and others were instructed to go to the building.
Coons and the floor staff made use of a previously-prepared kit containing the Senate seal, flags, a gavel and procedural materials. According to a pool report from reporters present, Coons stood in front of a curtain on which the Senate seal was tacked up and banged the gavel on a long rolling table, marking the beginning of the session; he then presided over the brief meeting and banged the gavel again to mark the session's close.
But wasn’t it true that the only reason the Senate and House have been meeting in pro forma sessions throughout the August recess is because of a political dispute over potential recess appointments,one reporter asked.
Coons acknowledged that that was the case.
“But,” he added, “what I’d like to focus on is that on a beautiful day in August in Washington, the Senate was able to conduct its business less than an hour after there was an earthquake.”
This post has been updated since it was first published.
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