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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Sessions, Adjournments, and Recesses of Congress

Richard S. Beth
Specialist on Congress and the Legislative Process

Jessica Tollestrup
Analyst on Congress and the Legislative Process

The House and Senate use the terms session, adjournment, and recess in both informal and more formal ways, but the concepts apply in parallel ways to both the daily and the annual activities of Congress. A session begins when the chamber convenes and ends when it adjourns. A recess, by contrast, does not terminate a session, but only suspends it temporarily.

In context of the daily activities of Congress, any calendar day on which a chamber is in session may be called a (calendar) “day of session.” A legislative day, by contrast, continues until the chamber adjourns. A session that continues into a second calendar day without adjourning still constitutes only one legislative day, but if a chamber adjourns, then reconvenes later on the same day, the single day of session includes two legislative days. Conversely, if a chamber recesses and then reconvenes on the same day, the same day of session and the same legislative day both continue. Finally, when a chamber recesses overnight, instead of adjourning, although a new calendar day of session begins when it reconvenes, the same legislative day continues.

A regular annual session of Congress begins when the two chambers convene in January, pursuant to the Constitution (or to law). An annual session ends with an adjournment sine die. Until the next annual session convenes, Congress is then in a period of sine die adjournment (or “intersession recess”). If the President were to call an additional, “extraordinary” session, it would be procedurally similar to a regular annual session.

The Constitution provides that neither chamber may adjourn for three days or more without the consent of the other. The two houses consent to each other’s sine die adjournment by adopting a concurrent resolution, called an “adjournment resolution.” They use a similar vehicle to allow each other to suspend their daily sessions for three days or more without terminating their annual session. Such a suspension is called a “recess of the session,” an intrasession recess, or, more formally, an “adjournment for more than three days” within a session. To avoid the need for a concurrent resolution, a chamber may hold pro forma sessions on such a schedule that no break of three days or more occurs.

Legislation retains its status, and may continue to receive action, until the last session of a Congress adjourns sine die. Nowadays, measures are “pocket vetoed” only when unsigned by the President after a final adjournment sine die. Nominations, by contrast, will be returned to the President if they remain pending whenever the Senate adjourns sine die or recesses its session for more than 30 days, unless the body otherwise orders.

“Lame duck sessions” are periods when Congress is in session after election day, but before the newly elected Congress takes office. Nowadays, they are not separate annual sessions, but portions of the last regular annual session of a Congress, usually separated from the pre-election portion by a recess of the session or by a period of pro forma sessions.

Recent Presidents have made recess appointments during intersession recesses (periods of sine die adjournment), even very short ones, but have usually done so during intrasession recesses only of 10 days or more. Pro forma sessions have sometimes been used to preclude recess appointments by preventing a recess of the session. The Office of Legal Counsel has recently argued that recess appointments are possible during a period that would be a recess of the session if not for pro forma sessions. A 2013 U.S. Court of Appeals decision instead asserts that recess

Date of Report: February 27, 2013
Number of Pages: 28
Order Number: R42977
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