Where, When, and Why Does the US Congress Meet?

Keeping the Nation's Legislative Business on Schedule

U.S. Capitol Building

Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Congress is charged with drafting, debating and sending bills to the president to be signed into law. But how do the nation's 100 senators and 435 representatives from 50 states manage their legislative business?

Where Does Congress Meet?

The United States Congress meets in the Capitol Building in Washington, District of Columbia. Originally built in 1800, the Capitol Building stands prominently atop the famously named “Capitol Hill" on the eastern edge of the National Mall.

Both the Senate and House of Representatives meet in separate, large "chambers" on the second floor of the Capitol Building. The House Chamber is located in the south wing, while the Senate Chamber is in the north wing. Congressional leaders, like the Speaker of the House and leaders of the political parties, have offices in the Capitol Building. The Capitol Building also displays an impressive collection of art related to the American and congressional history.

When Does It Meet?

The Constitution mandates that Congress convene at least once a year. Each Congress usually has two sessions, since members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms. The congressional calendar refers to measures that are eligible for consideration on the floor of Congress, although eligibility doesn't necessarily mean that a measure will be debated. The congressional schedule, meanwhile, keeps track of measures that Congress intends to discuss on a particular day.

Different Types of Sessions for Different Reasons

There are different types of sessions, during which either one or both chambers of Congress meet. The Constitution requires a quorum, or majority, to be present in order for the chambers to conduct business.

  • Regular sessions are when the House and Senate are in normal operation during the course of the year.
  • Closed sessions of the House or Senate are just that; only legislators are present to discuss the weightiest of matters, including impeachment of the president, national security concerns, and other sensitive information.
  • Joint sessions of Congress - with both houses present - occur when the president gives his State of the Union address or otherwise appears before Congress. They are also held to conduct formal business or to count electoral college votes in a presidential election.
  • Pro forma — from a Latin term meaning “as a matter of form” or “for the sake of form” — sessions are brief meetings of the chamber during which no legislative business may be conducted. More often held in the Senate than the House, pro forma sessions are typically used only to satisfy the constitutional obligation that neither chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other chamber. Pro forma sessions can also be used to prevent the President of the United States from making recess appointments, pocket-vetoing bills, or calling the Congress into a special session. For example, during a 2007 recess, Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, planned to keep the Senate in pro forma session in order to prevent further controversial appointments made by the Bush Administration. “I am keeping the Senate in pro forma to prevent recess appointments until we get this process on track,” said Sen. Reid. 
  • "Lame duck" sessions occur after the November elections and before the January inauguration when some representatives are set to leave office, whether by choice or after failing to win re-election.
  • Special sessions of Congress may be called in extraordinary circumstances. For example, a special session of Congress was called on March 20, 2005, to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, a woman in a persistent vegetative state whose family and husband found themselves at odds over whether to disconnect her feeding tube.

The ‘Turnip Day,’ Lame Duck Session

In late July 1948, incumbent President Harry Truman was desperate. With fewer than four months remaining before Election Day, his public approval rating stood at only 36 percent. In 1946, Congress had come under Republican control for the first time in 25 years. His opponent, Republican New York governor Thomas Dewey, seemed sure to win the White House. In search of a bold political gesture, Truman recalled a provision in the Constitution that allows the president "on extraordinary occasions" to convene one or both Houses of Congress.

On July 15, 1948, several weeks after the Republican-controlled Congress had adjourned for the year leaving much business unfinished, Truman took the unprecedented step of using his presidential nomination acceptance speech to call both houses back into session. He delivered that speech under particularly trying circumstances. Without air conditioning, delegates sweltered in the Philadelphia convention hall's oven-like atmosphere. By the time Truman finally stepped before the cameras in this first televised Democratic convention, organizers had lost all hope of controlling the schedule.

At 1:45 in the morning, speaking only from an outline, Truman quickly electrified the weary and sweaty delegates. In announcing the special session, he challenged the Republican majority to live up to the pledges of their own recently concluded convention to pass laws to ensure civil rights, extend Social Security coverage, and improve health care. "They can do this job in 15 days—if they want to do it." he challenged. That two-week session would begin on "what we in Missouri call 'Turnip Day,'" taken from the old Missouri saying, "On the twenty-sixth of July, sow your turnips, wet or dry."

Republican senators bristled. To Michigan's Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, it sounded like "a last hysterical gasp of an expiring administration." Yet, Vandenberg and other senior Senate Republicans urged action. "No!" exclaimed Republican Policy Committee chairman Robert Taft of Ohio. "We're not going to give that fellow anything." Taft surely knew that Truman had deftly placed Republicans in a no-win situation. The president "has us over a barrel," one Republican lawmaker conceded privately. "If we do as he asks, he'll claim all the credit … If we don't, he'll blame us for blocking his efforts." Vandenberg and other party strategists convinced Senator Taft to take action on a few measures to solidify key voting blocks.

After the 11-day Turnip Session, the 80th Congress sent two bills to the president for his signature: one aimed at inflation and one to spur housing starts. Though he signed both bills into law, predictably, Truman called the bills inadequate. "Would you say it was a do-nothing session, Mr. President?" asked one reporter at a press conference. "I would say it was a do-nothing session," Truman responded delightedly. "I think that's a good name for the 80th Congress." The term stuck: the "do-nothing" Congress. In November, defying all polls, predictions, and even headlines, Truman defeated Dewey and Democrats gained majorities in both houses of Congress.

Duration of a Congress

Each Congress lasts two years and is comprised of two sessions. The dates of Congress' sessions have changed over the years, but since 1934, the first session convenes on Jan. 3 of odd-numbered years and adjourns on Jan. 3 of the following year, while the second session runs from Jan. 3 to Jan. 2 of even-numbered years. Of course, everyone needs a vacation, and Congress' vacation traditionally comes in August, when representatives adjourn for month-long summer break. Congress also adjourns for national holidays.

4 Types of Adjournments

There are four types of adjournments. The most common form of adjournment ends the day, following a motion to do so. Adjournments for three days or less also require the adoption of a motion to adjourn. These are limited to each chamber; the House may adjourn while the Senate remains in session or vice-versa. Adjournments for a period longer than three days require the consent of the other chamber and the adoption of a concurrent resolution in both bodies. Finally, legislators may adjourn "sine die" to end a session of Congress, which requires the consent of both chambers and follows the adoption of a concurrent resolution in both chambers.

Congressional Recesses

Throughout each year, Congress, without fully adjourning takes several recesses, temporary interruptions in legislative proceedings. While some recesses last no longer than overnight, others last far longer, such as the breaks taken during holiday periods. For example, Congress’ annual summer recess typically extends through the entire month of August.

Not caring for the negative connotations of the word “recess” to taxpayers, most members of Congress prefer to describe their longer annual recesses as “district work periods.” Most members use the extended recesses to meet with their constituents and to attend all kinds of local meetings while remaining in constant contact with their Washington, D.C. offices.

Recesses also give the President of the United States the opportunity to make often controversial “recess appointments” to temporarily fill vacancies of senior federal officials, like Cabinet secretaries, without the constitutionally required approval of the Senate.

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Trethan, Phaedra. "Where, When, and Why Does the US Congress Meet?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 11, 2022, thoughtco.com/what-are-congressional-sessions-3322284. Trethan, Phaedra. (2022, June 11). Where, When, and Why Does the US Congress Meet? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-congressional-sessions-3322284 Trethan, Phaedra. "Where, When, and Why Does the US Congress Meet?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-congressional-sessions-3322284 (accessed June 10, 2023).