In August and September 2021, several right-leaning websites and Republican Congress members made outraged claims that House Democrats, and in particular House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had “blocked” their attempts to read the names of the 13 U.S. troops killed in an Islamic State group attack at Kabul airport in Afghanistan.
For example, on Aug. 31, U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, R-Florida, wrote on Twitter:
“House Democrats just refused to recognize Republican veterans on the House Floor to read the names of our fallen service members in Afghanistan. That’s how far our nation has fallen.”
While U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Florida, framed the incident as part of an alleged “cover up,” by Democrats, of the Kabul attack:
“How badly do Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats want to cover up this Afghanistan debacle? They just blocked Members of Congress from reading the names of the service members who sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan last week.”
A third Republican Congressman from the state, Brian Mast, made similar claims in an interview with the right-leaning Floridian website:
Rep. Brian Mast (R), a wounded combat veteran from Afghanistan, tells The Floridian that during a Republican-only “moment of silence,” Speaker Pelosi refused to recognize them to” read names or bring up bills or anything.”
“We gaveled in, had a prayer, said the Pledge of Allegiance, took a moment of silence with pretty much all Republican veterans, then asked to be recognized to read names and bring up Afghanistan legislation. They did not acknowledge us, and just closed the House down,” said Rep. Mast.
Similar articles, which either leveled or uncritically repeated the allegation that Democrats had “blocked” Republican House members from reading the names of the troops, were published by Mass Central, American Military News, Law Enforcement Today, Breitbart, the U.S. Sun, Becker News, the Daily Wire, and the Washington Examiner.
Many of those reports specifically accused Pelosi of having been responsible for “blocking” GOP efforts to read the list of names, and none of them mentioned a crucial contextual fact about the Aug. 31 House session in question, which is explained in detail below. As a result, we are issuing a rating of “Mostly False.”
What Happened in the House of Representatives on Aug. 31?
The claim that Pelosi, in particular, had “blocked” the House Republicans in question, was demonstrably false. Video of the Aug. 31 session, which only lasted a few minutes, clearly shows that the House Speaker was not even present in the chamber during the incident in question. Rather, the session was overseen by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., whom Pelosi had designated as the speaker pro tempore:
The sequence of events was as follows (all times EDT):
11:30 a.m.: The session opened
11:30 a.m.: The House Clerk read a note from Pelosi, designating Dingell speaker pro tempore
11:30 a.m.: House Chaplain Margaret Grun Kibben read a prayer
11:32 a.m.: Dingell formally approved the journal of the previous day’s proceedings (Aug. 27)
11:32 a.m.: House members recited the Pledge of Allegiance
11:33 a.m.: Dingell asked the House to join in observing a moment of silence in honor of the 13 U.S. troops killed in Kabul on Aug. 26
11:34 a.m.: Dingell adjourned the House until Sept. 3. Clamor is audible among Republican members, but no specific remarks are discernible.
The video footage of the Aug. 31 session provides no evidence that Dingell was even aware, at the time she adjourned the session, that Republican members were attempting to make remarks of some kind, nor that she was aware specifically that they wanted to read out the names of the troops killed in Kabul.
Snopes asked the House Republican Conference, as well as Steube, Gimenez and Mast — the three House Republicans who criticized Democrats for “blocking” their efforts on Aug. 31 — whether any Republican had made any advanced request or given any advanced notification, verbal or written, to Pelosi, Dingell or any Democrats, that they wanted to read out the names of the troops during the Aug. 31 session.
We also asked those House Republicans for a copy of any written correspondence that would demonstrate that Pelosi, Dingell or their respective staffs, were aware in advance that the GOP members wanted to make remarks from the floor, and that they were aware of the content of those remarks. We did not receive a response of any kind.
Furthermore, several of the reports highlighted above described the moment of silence held on Aug. 31 as being “Republican” or “Republican only.” This is laughable. It was Dingell, from the chair, who initiated that moment of silence, saying:
“The chair asks that all members in the chamber, as well as members and staff throughout the Capitol, to rise for a moment of silence in remembrance of the 13 service members who were killed during the terrorist bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 26.”
Setting aside the blatantly inaccurate claims of Pelosi’s involvement in the session, the question then becomes whether Dingell or other Democrats “blocked” House Republicans from reading out the names. In order to address that contention, one essential piece of context must be explained, something the GOP representatives and online articles highlighted above completely failed to do — the Aug. 31 meeting of the House was a “pro forma” session.
What Is a “Pro Forma” Session?
Every two years, American voters elect a new Congress, composed of the House and Senate. For example, the current Congress is the 117th, which began on Jan. 3, 2021, and will last until Jan. 3, 2023. The last Congress, from Jan. 2019 to Jan. 2021, was the 116th. In turn, each Congress is made up of two annual sessions.
Article I, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution states, in part: “Neither House, during the session of Congress, shall, without the consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days…”
If either the House or Senate fail to meet for more than three days, that chamber is deemed to be in a “recess of the session.” Falling into a recess of the session triggers various administrative and technical procedures and protocols, with arguably the most significant being the ability of the U.S. president to make “recess appointments,” which can often be a source of considerable political tension and controversy.
In order to avoid falling into a recess of the session, while allowing House members to stay in their far-flung districts and (in principle) work on behalf of their constituents, Congress has developed a long-standing tradition of holding “pro forma” sessions, derived from the Latin phrase meaning “for the sake of form.” As the Congressional Research Service explains:
Both houses have also used pro forma sessions as a means of establishing a constituency work period without requiring a “recess of the session.” A chamber may effectively establish a one week constituency work period, for example, by arranging to meet only on Monday and Thursday of the week in question, and only for short sessions at which no business is to occur. In this way, none of the intervals between daily sessions need constitute an adjournment for three days or more…
By convention, and by the agreement of all parties, pro forma sessions do not involve any substantive legislative activity, such as votes, motions, debates or remarks from the floor.
One significant logistical reason for this is that introducing a bill, for example, could require hundreds of Congress members to quickly return to Washington D.C. from their home districts, in order to debate and vote on the legislation — something that would, at various times, cause considerable inconvenience and mutual resentment among members from all sides.
In order to avoid such scenarios, a tradition has developed over time whereby pro forma sessions take place simply in order to keep the House and Senate from falling into a recess of the session, and do not exist for the purpose of any substantive legislative business, or political controversy.
Thus, it would be accurate to say that, during the Aug. 31 House session, it was the uniformly agreed-upon conventions and protocols surrounding pro forma House sessions — not Dingell, and certainly not Pelosi — that “blocked” House Republicans from reading out the names of the troops killed in Kabul.
In this way, the claims and allegations made by various right-leaning websites, as well as some House Republicans, were profoundly misleading and — assuming those members were aware of the conventions surrounding pro forma sessions — disingenuous.
However, one disclaimer needs to be presented at this point. Pro forma sessions are governed by convention and tradition, but not formal written rules and regulations. As the Congressional Research Service explains, a pro forma session “does not have a precise formal sense,” but is commonly used to describe “a short daily session of either chamber in which little or no business is transacted.”
While bound by the conventions surrounding pro forma sessions, we could find no written rule which technically precludes the chair of the House from acknowledging members and, in principle, allowing them to make remarks such as the ones House Republicans claim they attempted to make. However, evidence is so far completely lacking that, in this specific instance, either Pelosi or Dingell had any awareness of what the GOP members were endeavoring to do, on the floor.
Even if they were aware of the content of the remarks, departing from protocol by allowing such remarks to be made would have posed a significant risk of setting a precedent that could, over time, undermine the functional purpose of the conventions surrounding pro forma sessions.
Finally, the broader claim that Pelosi and Dingell were supposedly motivated by a desire to “cover up” the deaths of the 13 service members in Kabul, is also contradicted by the facts. In a news release on Aug. 31, Pelosi named each of the 13 troops, adding:
“We are united in prayer for the thirteen U.S. servicemembers killed last Thursday as they helped bring over 124,000 Americans, allies and Afghan partners to safety, an act of profound valor, selflessness and sacrifice.”
Dingell, for her part, is one of 238 co-sponsors of a bipartisan bill to posthumously award the Congressional Gold Medal to each of those 13 service members.
On Sept. 10, nine days after its original article was published, Breitbart updated its report on the controversy to include the following editor’s note:
According to Pelosi spokesperson Robyn Patterson, House Republicans did not request in advance to read the names of the fallen, but rather did so after the moment of silence, which was a protocol violation. In a pro forma session no legislative business is conducted and there are no votes, floor resolutions, or free-speech periods.
As of Sept. 13, none of the other articles highlighted above have been updated to reflect this crucial piece of context.
Sources:“Pelosi Blasted for ‘Refusing to Let Names of Slain Marines Be Read Out.’” The US Sun, 1 Sept. 2021, https://www.the-sun.com/news/3581183/pelosi-fallen-us-marines-read-out-house-floor/.“Article I.” LII / Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlei. Accessed 13 Sept. 2021.Davis, Scott A. “Disgraceful: Pelosi Blocks Names of 13 Service Members Murdered in Afghanistan from Being Read (Op-Ed).” Law Enforcement Today, 1 Sept. 2021, https://www.lawenforcementtoday.com/nancy-pelosi-blocks-republicans-from-reading-names-of-fallen-military-heroes-on-house-floor/.George, Liz. “Nancy Pelosi Blocked Reading Names of 13 US Troops Killed in Kabul Says Veteran Congressmen.” American Military News, 1 Sept. 2021, https://americanmilitarynews.com/2021/09/nancy-pelosi-blocked-reading-names-of-13-us-troops-killed-in-kabul-says-veteran-congressmen/.Husebø, Wendell. “Claim: GOP Did Not Follow Protocol Reading Names of Servicemembers.” Breitbart, 1 Sept. 2021, https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2021/09/01/nancy-pelosi-blocks-house-from-reading-names-of-13-killed-u-s-service-members/.“Nancy Pelosi Blocked GOP From Reading Names Of Slain U.S. Troops, Reps Say.” The Daily Wire, https://www.dailywire.com/news/nancy-pelosi-blocked-gop-from-reading-names-of-slain-u-s-troops-reps-say. Accessed 13 Sept. 2021.“Nancy Pelosi Shocks the Country by *Blocking* the Reading of 13 Slain American Troops on House Floor.” Becker News, 31 Aug. 2021, https://beckernews.com/nancy-pelosi-shocks-the-country-by-blocking-the-reading-of-13-slain-american-troops-on-house-floor-41270/.“Pelosi Blocks Names of 13 Service Members Killed From Being Read.” MassCentral, 31 Aug. 2021, https://masscentral.com/pelosi-blocks-names-of-13-service-members-killed-from-being-read/.“Pelosi Knelt for George Floyd in Congress but Refused to Read Names of US Military Killed in Afghanistan.” Washington Examiner, 2 Sept. 2021, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/pelosi-knelt-for-george-floyd-in-congress-but-refused-to-read-names-of-us-military-killed-in-afghanistan.“Pelosi Statement on President Biden’s Speech on Afghanistan.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 31 Aug. 2021, https://www.speaker.gov/newsroom/83121.