[Last update 2001jun06]

Explanation of the types of Sessions of Congress


"Regular" Sessions of Congress
"Regular" Sessions prior to the adoption of the 20th Amendment (1933)
"Regular" Sessions after the adoption of the 20th Amendment (1933)
"Extra" Sessions
"Special SENATE" Sessions

This page is a reference for:
Sessions of the Congress of the United States
Related information:
Political Party Floor Leaders in the Congress of the United States


 

"REGULAR" SESSIONS OF CONGRESS:

Both before and after the adoption of the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which moved the date of the start of a given two-year Congress from 4 March of an odd-numbered year following the November elections up to 3 January of that same year), Congress was constitutionally mandated to "assemble at least once in every year". This meant that every Congress has had no less than two "regular" sessions, held annually. In the "Sessions of Congress" chart, such "regular" sessions are listed under the heading "type" in bold face, as either long or short, odd or even. An explanation of this terminology follows:

"Regular" Sessions prior to the adoption of the 20th Amendment (1933)

The original text of the U.S. Constitution- as agreed to at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia- only stated the following, as regards the time for the assembling of Congress:

The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by law appoint a different Day. [Article I, Section 4, clause 2]

At the time this provision was included in the document, there was no idea as to when exactly the terms of the Members of Congress were to begin; the Constitution only stated that Representatives (elected by the People) would be elected every two years and Senators (elected by the State Legislatures) would be elected for six year terms, with approximately one-third of the Senate elected every two years. There appears to have been some kind of general idea that the terms of Congressmen and Senators would be interrelated but the Constitution, as originally drafted, never set a specific timetable- that is, the Framers never said: "Here, on this date every two years, the members of a new Congress start their terms".

The timetable that came to be adopted, and which would be used until the adoption of the 20th Amendment, was something of an accident of history. When the dying Continental Congress under the soon-to-be-defunct Articles of Confederation passed enabling legislation to bring the Federal Government under the new Constitution into being, that legislation stated that the new Government was to replace the old (i.e., the Constitution was to replace the Articles) on the first Wednesday in March in 1789- which just happened to be 4 March that year. One can legitimately question, in retrospect, just how much weight the First Congress had to give the decision of a body which was not even part of the new Federal scheme (could not the First Congress itself have decided that- given Art.I, sec. 4, cl. 2- the first Monday in December [7 December in 1789] should mark the start of its two-year term? No President or Vice-President could be elected until Congress counted the Electoral Votes; no Federal Judiciary or Executive Department heads could be appointed until these two officers were sworn in!); nevertheless, members of the First Congress dutifully began assembling in the temporary capital of New York City that 4 March 1789 (though the House would not have a quorum in attendance for four more weeks after that date and the Senate would not until some six more days thereafter) and it came to be accepted that that date would be considered that which would determine the end of the two year terms of Congressmen, the four year terms of Presidents and Vice-Presidents and the six year terms of Senators. It is interesting to note that it was not "the first Wednesday in March"- the language used by the Confederation Congress- which became the basis of these terms of office but 4 March itself, regardless of on which day of the week it was to fall (this thanks to a law passed by the Second Congress just prior to the 1792 Presidential Election, though it seems as if that body was merely legally codifying the date on which it already thought it had taken over from the First Congress in 1791 in order to make clear when the next President and Vice-President would be sworn in [George Washington and John Adams had not been sworn in for their respective four-year terms until late April 1789, so the issue needed to be addressed by statute]).

The first session of the First Congress was a so-called "Quorum" or organizing session; it created committees, elected officers of each house, and passed bills which would begin the task of filling in the details within the framework of Government the Constitution had set up before adjourning toward the end of September 1789 and, in order to make sure that the members of Congress had plenty of time- in those days of crude transportation (there were, of course, no railroads- let alone motor vehicles and airplanes!) and limited communication (there was, obviously, no telegraph- let alone telephones or radio!)- to be in direct contact with their home Districts and States before having to return for the first "regular" session, Congress exercised its authority to "by law appoint a different Day" by delaying that session from the first Monday in December [the 7th in 1789] until January 1790.

Theoretically, by delaying the resumption of legislative business into the next calendar year, Congress had- in its first two sessions- already fulfilled the constitutional mandate that it "assemble once in every Year"; nonetheless, after another 4-month recess to allow its membership to "consult with the People back home"the First Congress assembled in a second "regular" session to take care of that nagging "first Monday in December" provision. For his part, President George Washington decided to deliver a formal message to Congress at the start of each of these two "regular" sessions in order to fulfill the constitutional requirement that "He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient" [Art. II, Sec.3]. The precedents had, thus, been set: Congress would meet in at least one "regular" (that is, constitutionally required) session in the odd-numbered calendar year the 4 March of which marked its beginning to be followed by another such "regular" session in the even-numbered year following, such sessions to begin on the first Monday in December, assuming Congress did not- indeed- appoint a different day; the President would issue what would become known as his "Annual Message" to Congress within a few days of the convening of each of these "regular" sessions (since each of these two "regular" sessions in each Congress would assemble annually)- later, using the constitutional language, the "Annual Message" would become known, at least colloquially, as "the State of the Union" Address.

In time, the earlier of these two "regular" sessions came to be known as the long session, since- assuming it started on the constitutional date of the first Monday in December- it would, more than likely, run into at least mid-to-late Spring or even the early part of Summer (that is, it could run 4 or more months in length); the later "regular" session came to be called the short session because- again assuming it began, in the even-numbered year, on the first Monday in December of Article I, Section 4- it was limited by the coming of yet another 4 March in an odd-numbered year signalling the end of the Congress (that is, it could- under normal circumstances- run no longer than approximately 3 months, give or take). Of course, there were those occasional proverbial "exceptions that proved the rule" where a long session was actually shorter than the short session in a particular Congress (for example, the 13th Congress- in which, because it assembled nearly 3 months before the first Monday in December, the "short" session of that Congress was actually 32 days longer than its earlier "long" session) but this "long"/"short" terminology became the colloquial manner in which to refer to the two annual constitutionally required "regular" sessions each Congress was to hold, the sessions that would require the President to report on "the State of the Union" in his Annual Message.

The recurring pattern of long session one year, short session the next- assembling, more often than not, on the first Monday in December (the "long", thus, convening some 9 months after the Congress itself had formally begun the previous 4 March)- was actually beneficial in the early days of the "more, perfect Union" the Constitution was drafted to ordain: a Congressman, once elected, could stay in his home District or State for a significant length of time before actually taking office and learn what his constituents wanted of him, allowing him to bring their concerns to that earlier "long" session of Congress- even with the amount of time needed to get to the Nation's Capital from the more remote, frontier outposts of the Country. There usually would be a significant recess, several months in length, between the "long" and "short" sessions- the Congressman would travel home, make known how he intended to handle proposals put forth in the "long" session but which awaited final passage in the "short" session and be able to listen to how his constituents felt about things before returning to the Capital for the "short" session.

"Regular" sessions after the adoption of the 20th Amendment (1933):

There was, however, one salient fact about the short pre-20th Amendment "regular" session which must be noted and that is that every "short" session of Congress potentially included members of the House of Representatives (recall that Senators were originally agents of the State Legislatures, not the People- as were Congressmen) who had already been thrown out of office in an intervening election. In the early days, this issue of the so-called "lame duck" politician was not all that much of a problem: communications being what they were in the late 18th Century going into the early 19th Century, a Congressman from the frontier might not even yet know- as he took his seat for the "short" session in early December- that, back in late October or early-to-mid November (when most States held their elections), he had been defeated for re-election. In addition, many States held their elections later than the Fall of the even-numbered year (in fact, more than a few States- particularly those that could still get their newly elected Congressmen to the Nation's Capital by the constitutionally mandated first Monday in December of the odd-numbered year- could even hold their elections after the Congress to which the Congressman was being elected had already begun on 4 March of the odd-numbered year!... of course, in so doing, these States ran the risk of being unrepresented in an early "Extra" session- see below- called by the President).

Two events in the 1840s changed things, however: first, the perfection of the telegraph into a practical method of long-distance communication in 1844 (no more would a Congressman take his seat for a "short" session in early December without knowing he was, indeed, a "lame duck"!); second, the passing by Congress- in 1845- of a law requiring that Presidential Electors to be chosen on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in the November of the even-numbered year (by 1845, all but one State- South Carolina- were choosing Presidential Electors by popular vote). Elections are expensive: holding more than one every year even more so; little by little, States began changing the date on which they elected Congressmen to the same date as that of the Presidential Election (even for Midterm Congressional Elections in those even-numbered years in which a President was not being elected)- New Hampshire was the last State to elect its Congressmen in an odd-numbered year (the Granite State's last such election being in 1877 for its members of the House in the 45th Congress) [similarly, and for much the same reason (the costs of holding an election), State election dates also would follow suit- though more slowly: Maine was the last State to elect State officers on a date other than the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November where such officers are elected in the same year as members of Congress; the Pine Tree State finally joined the "November General Election" crowd with the 1960 Election... Louisiana still elects its State officials on a date other than the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November but for terms that start at the beginning of an even-numbered year- not an odd-numbered year, as is the case with Congress... there are still local elections (for city Mayor, County Board and the like) across the country which take place other than in November (though the trend is for these to at least coincide with a State's date for its Primary Elections for State officers- again, to save money)]. Transportation was also improving: the railroad was spreading everywhere (though more efficiently and in more interlocking a manner in the North than in the South); the combination of improved communication and better transportation was making the "short" session more and more anachronistic- those who decried it began to call it the "lame duck session": the problem was that this "lame duck" "short" session was written into a Constitution in which its drafters had failed to set specific terms of office by date to go along with the length of those terms; thus, the Constitution would have to be amended in order to set a new, more efficient schedule of "regular" sessions of Congress.

Other problems with the "short" session also surfaced: the "short" session became the repository of difficult- if not to say controversial- proposals passed over during the "long" session (why? simple- the "long" session preceded the Congressional Elections in November, the "short" session did not... the 20th Amendment, by the way, was supposed to end such election year "political hesitation" [by making the second- and last- session of a Congress, as we shall see, precede the Elections for the next Congress]-- needless to say, it has not succeeded!); this was on top of the problem of the session being too short to tackle much general legislation to begin with (the consideration of appropriations bills would take up pretty much the entire 3 months)- either bills were hastily dealt with (with more than a few ill effects of badly crafted legislation) or not at all. Above all, it was the "short" session of the outgoing Congress which counted and tabulated the Electoral Votes for President and Vice-President (the Congress that came up with the ill-fated Electoral Commission to handle the disputed 1876 Election was one made up of more than a few "lame ducks" in either house... say what you will about the Electoral College result of the 2000 Presidential Election: at least every single person eligible to sit in that tabulation Joint Session of Congress on 6 January 2001 was newly elected the previous November- thanks to the 20th Amendment; the only outgoing elected official present was its presiding officer, then-still-Vice President Gore!). The problem of being a "lame duck" in the "short" session became even more acute when Senators were elected by popular vote with the adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913; now both houses of Congress had members serving within them after having been defeated for re-election by the People in the most recent election! All in all, the "short"- "lame duck"- session of a Congress being held- in an age of automobiles, streamlined trains and the improving airplane- after the next Congress waiting to take office the following 4 March had already been chosen no longer made much sense.

And so, the adoption of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution- effective with the second session of the 73rd Congress (to begin- under the new timetable- on 3 January 1934):

The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.

Gone was the "regular" biennial rhythm of long and short, replaced now by the biennial rhythm of odd and even (as in: the first "regular" session in an odd-numbered year, the second "regular" session in an even-numbered year). This is the schedule of "regular" sessions of Congress that still prevails today.

It is possible (and, indeed, has happened more than a few times) that the even session of a post-20th Amendment Congress could continue beyond the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November when the members of the next Congress have already been elected (or, more to the point, after many persons sitting in said even session have already been voted out of office). Those even sessions which contain such a "lame duck component" are indicated on the "Sessions of Congress" chart by an italicized (ld) [as in lame duck]. (I here use the term "lame duck component" because, even though it is common practice to refer to an outgoing Congress meeting after the latest Congressional Elections as being in "lame duck session", this period of meeting- rather than being a so-called "Extra" session- is really just the tail end of a session that convened long before the November elections.)


OTHER [NON-"REGULAR"] SESSIONS OF CONGRESS:

"Extra" Sessions

An "Extra" session of Congress (listed as such under the "type" heading on the "Sessions of Congress" chart) is a session of Congress outside the two "regular" sessions required by the Constitution (the long and short sessions mandated by Article I, Section 4; after 1933, the odd and even sessions authorized by the 20th Amendment). The most common reason for an "Extra" session has been the calling of Congress into such session through Proclamation by the President exercising his power- under Article II, section 3- to "on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses...". Prior to the adoption of the 20th Amendment, with all the time between 4 March of an odd-numbered year on which a Congress started and the following first Monday in December which was the latest date a "regular" long session could convene, there was ample opportunity for a President to call Congress into "Extra" session sometime during this period- it should not be surprising, therefore, that the "Extra" session was much more common before 1933 than it has been since.

Since the 20th Amendment has taken effect, an "Extra" session of Congress has only been called by presidential proclamation twice- each time after adjournment of a "regular" odd session but before the following year's even session had convened- each time by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the nearly year-long length of both "regular" sessions of Congress just before and during World War II did not afford FDR the opportunity to ever call another one. No President since has called Congress into between-"regular" sessions "Extra" sessions; the nearly year-long length of the odd session in recent decades has probably made it unnecessary for a modern President to do so (as noted above, if a "lame duck" post-election period of meeting at the end of a Congress is needed, it has been the practice that this is the result of Congress simply tacking on time to the "regular" even session)

In theory, Congress can call itself into "Extra" session (but the post-20th Amendment Congress has always counted breaks in its legislative schedule as "recesses" within either the odd or even "regular" session). The 39th Congress, by law, called the 40th Congress into "Extra" session at the start of its term on 4 March 1867 in an attempt to prevent Andrew Johnson from calling a Special Session of the Senate (see below) [President Johnson did anyway, in between what today would be called "recesses" of the 40th Congress' "Extra" session]. Likewise, in the failed attempt to use post-Civil War Reconstruction as a vehicle for the establishment of so-called "Congressional Government" (which would have replaced the presidential republic with a quasi-parliamentary system under which the President and his Cabinet would be largely responsible to Congress), the law passed by the 39th Congress remained in force long enough to force both the 41st and 42nd Congresses to meet in "Extra" session on 4 March. However, with the repeal of this statute during the 42nd Congress, this practice of mandating an "Extra" session at the start of each Congress was abandoned and any future "Extra" sessions were thereafter- as they had been before the statute had been adopted- only to be called via executive Proclamation by the President.

By the way: the technically correct term for a non-"regular" session of both houses of Congress is, in fact, "Extra" session- as the session is, nevertheless, counted as one of the numbered sessions of a Congress (which explains why some Congresses have had 3- or even 4!- sessions in a two-year term). The colloquial term "Special Session" for the same thing is just that- colloquial. However, the message/address given by a President at the start of an "Extra" session (the "Extra" session's equivalent of the President's "Annual Message"= "State of the Union Address") IS called a "Special Message".

"Special SENATE" Sessions

Article II, Section 3 gives the President power to "on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them [italics mine]". Presidents, before the adoption of the 20th Amendment, often used this power to call the Senate alone into Special Session (and, yes- here the term "Special Session" IS the proper one, as not the entire Congress meets). Despite the phrase "extraordinary Occasions" in the enabling clause of the Constitution, most Special Sessions of the Senate were rather routine: it was common practice for the President of an outgoing Administration to call the Senate of the incoming Congress into Special Session on 4 March of the odd-numbered year so that it could "advise and consent" to any executive and ministerial nominations made by the new President (which, after all, had to be approved by the Senate meeting in so-called "Executive Session") as soon as possible after the incoming Administration was sworn in that 4 March (the "long" session of the Congress convening as late as the first Monday in December following the 4 March inauguration of a new President, a Special Session of the Senate was the only way- before the 20th Amendment was adopted- for such new President to have a Cabinet in place soon after taking office).

Early on, Presidents Washington and John Adams called the Senate into Special Session for purposes other than that of facilitating the confirmation of a new Administration's nominees. The Senate (being, in effect, a council of "Ambassadors" from the sovereign States of the Union) was viewed, by many of those who later formed the Federalist Party, as a kind of Executive Council as well as the upper house of the Congress; many constitutional historians see much evidence that this, indeed, was the intent of the Framers of the Constitution: if so, it- much like the Electoral College- was a concept that never got the chance to work as the Framers, however arguably, intended. Washington was strongly rebuffed in his attempt to use the Senate as a council of "advisers" (the Separation of Powers doctrine coming into play); nevertheless, he did call the Senate into Special Session to consider Jay's Treaty, for example. John Adams also called the Senate alone into session re: Foreign Policy but, beginning with the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (who viewed the Senate as potentially "aristocratic"), the practice of calling the Senate into Special Session for purposes other than the inauguration of a new Administration became exceedingly rare.

The 20th Amendment timetable, combined with the increasing average length of each "regular" sessions of the post-World War II Congresses- as compared to those of a hundred years earlier, has made a President calling the Senate alone into Special Session obsolete. No President- since the 20th Amendment took effect with the 2nd session of the 73rd Congress- has called the Senate into Special Session. It is also interesting to note that, although it is constitutionally permissible to do so, the House of Representatives has never- in its entire history- been called into Special Session by itself!

 

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