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The scoop on what really occurs at swearing-in for new members of Congress

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C-SPAN2/AP/File

(Read caption) This video frame grab shows Vice President Joe Biden (back to camera) administering the Senate oath to its newest Senators on Nov. 15, 2010, on the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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The swearing-in of new senators and representatives at the beginning of a session of Congress is always a touching scene, isn’t it?

The raised hand, the encircling family, the oath upon the Bible, the promise to uphold the Constitution, and so forth.

The freshman lawmakers usually look hopeful and eager to make a difference, as if they’d just watched Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” for the first time.

Well, it’s great that American democracy is refreshed from time to time by an influx of new leaders. But those swearing-in ceremonies you’ve seen pictures of are not what they seem.

First of all, the Bible in essence is a prop. It could be – and has been, in some circumstances – a Quran, or some other book of religious significance. Or it could be something by Jane Austen or Stephen King, or a compilation of “Calvin and Hobbes” comics.

The US Constitution requires that lawmakers take an oath of office before assuming their duties. A law passed by Congress lays out the text of that oath. But neither the Constitution nor a statute mandates that a Bible or anything else be used when the oath is taken.

New members can, and do, hold items meaningful to them in their left hand while they raise their right for the oath. That’s their personal choice.

“Some Senators [and Representatives] have held nothing, and nothing is required,” says a Congressional Research Service guide to the first day of a new Congress.

Second, those iconic photos that show individual lawmakers taking the oath and are published in the local press and later hung on their office walls with other memorabilia are virtually all reenactments.

House members are sworn in en masse. Senators take the oath in groups of four. Plus – and this is the crucial part – still photography on House and Senate floors is prohibited.

Not to worry – for many years, newly minted lawmakers have been ushered into ceremonial rooms off the floor for official reenactment photos. They can bring their Bibles with them.


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