Understanding Congressional Sessions and How they Work

Congress has the responsibility of drafting as well as debating and sending bills to the President to be signed into law. Legislative business is handled by the 100 Senators and 435 Representatives through Congressional sessions.

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Congress is mandated by the Constitution to convene a minimum of once per year (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 4). Each Congress typically has two regular sessions (a first session and a second session), called Terms of Congress.

There are various types of sessions and either one or both chambers of Congress may meet during those sessions. Under the Constitution (Article I, Section 5), a majority is required to be present for the chambers to meet and conduct business.

In regular sessions the House and Senate are in normal operation. In a closed or executive session of either the House or the Senate, only the legislators will be present to discuss the most serious of matters; which might include the impeachment of the president, national security issues, etc. In a joint session of Congress both houses are present. This may occur during the State of the Union address or when the president appears before Congress for some other reason. The lame duck session takes place in the second session, after the November elections and prior to the January adjournment. The lame duck session includes members of Congress who have not been re-elected and will not return for the next Term of Congress.

A special session of Congress may be called for special circumstances.

Each Congress lasts for two years and is comprised of two sessions. Over the years, the dates of those sessions have changed; however, since 1934 the first session convenes on January 3rd of odd-numbered years and adjourns on January 3rd the following year. The second session runs from January 3rd of even-numbered years to January 2nd of odd-numbered years.

Congress takes breaks throughout the year, including a one month recess during most of August. Congress also typically recesses for national holidays.

There are four different types of adjournments. The most common type of adjournment will simply end the day, with a motion to do so. An adjournment for three days or less requires the adoption of a motion. For an adjournment of longer than three days, the consent of the other chamber is required along with the adoption of a concurrent resolution in both bodies. There is also an adjournment to end a session in Congress, Adjournment Sine Die. This type of adjournment requires the consent of both chambers.

For detailed information about the legislative process, see

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