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Congressional Sessions

Keeping the Nation's Legislative Business on Schedule

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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?

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.

Types of Sessions
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.

  • "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 were at odds over whether to disconnect her feeding tube.

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.

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.

Phaedra Trethan is a freelance writer who also works as a copy editor for the Camden Courier-Post. She formerly worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she wrote about books, religion, sports, music, films and restaurants.

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