A new Congress begins at noon January 3 of each odd-numbered year following a general
election, unless it designates a different day by law. A Congress lasts for two
years, with each year constituting a separate session. The Legislative Reorganization
Act of 1970 requires Congress to adjourn sine die no later than July 31 of each
year unless there is a declared war, or unless Congress otherwise provides. In odd-numbered
years, the Congress must take an August recess if it fails to adjourn by July 31.
Neither the House nor the Senate may adjourn for more than three days (excluding
Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays) without the concurrence of the other Chamber.
It has also become a common practice for the Congress to adjourn after making provision
for the House and Senate leaders to summon the Congress back into session in emergency
circumstances. Similarly, the Constitution grants the President the authority to
summon the Congress for a special session if circumstances require.
Activities on the House Floor are updated online throughout the legislative day. View the current floor schedule.
The Speaker calls the House to order, and the Sergeant at Arms places the Mace on
the pedestal at the right of the Speaker's platform. After the Chaplain offers a
prayer, the Speaker recognizes a Member to lead the House in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Then the journal of the previous day's activities is approved, usually without being
read. Next, the Speaker may recognize a few Members to speak briefly on matters of importance to them, for no longer than one minute each. The House then is ready to begin or resume consideration of a bill, resolution, or conference report. The Committee on Rules provides information on general parliamentary procedure.
A term of Congress is two years long and begins on January 3 of each odd-numbered year. Each Member of the U.S. House of Representatives is elected to serve for one term at a time, and may be elected later to serve additional terms.
A session of Congress is one year long. Each term has two sessions, which are referred to as “1st” or “2nd.” Being “in session” refers to when Congress is meeting during the session.
Congress holds joint sessions to receive addresses from the President and to count
electoral ballots for President and Vice President. Congress also holds joint meetings
to receive addresses from such dignitaries as foreign heads of state, heads of government,
or from distinguished American citizens.
In the House, Members stand, address the presiding officer and do not proceed until
recognized to speak. The presiding officer (the Speaker of the House, Speaker pro
tempore or the chairman in the Committee of the Whole) has the authority to ask
Members for what purpose they seek recognition. The presiding officer may then recognize
or not recognize the Member, depending upon the purpose for which recognition was
A bill that is to be introduced is typed on a special House form and signed by the
Representative who will introduce it. A Representative may introduce a bill any
time the House is in session by placing it in a special box known as the "hopper,"
which is located on the Clerk's desk on the House floor.
How Our Laws Are Made at the THOMAS website provides additional information
on the legislative process.
In the House, a matter may undergo one hour of debate, usually equally divided between
the majority and the minority without unanimous consent. Moreover, the majority
can call for the "previous question," and bring the pending matter to an immediate
vote. Non-legislative debate is limited to one-minute per Member at the beginning
of the day and up to one hour per Member at the end of the day. In the Committee
of the Whole, the period of time spent in general debate is determined and apportioned
in advance. Amendments are subject to the five-minute per side rule, but can extend
beyond 10 minutes of debate per amendment. A non-debatable motion to close debate
is in order to end debate on any specific amendment and bring it to a vote.
Most votes are taken by a simple voice method, in which the yeas and nays are called
out, respectively. It is the judgment of the chair as to which are greater in number
determines the vote. If a recorded vote is desired, a sufficient second must support
it. The Constitution simply provides that "the yeas and nays of the Members of either
House on any question shall at the desire of one-fifth of those present, be entered
on the Journal." One-fifth of a quorum is deemed to be 44 in the House (one-fifth
of 218). Since 1973, the House has used an electronic voting system to reduced the
time consumed in voting, and permits a minimum of 15 minutes to complete a vote.
A quorum in the House of Representatives is when a majority of the Members are present.
When there are no vacancies in the membership, a quorum is 218. When one or more
seats are vacant, because of deaths or resignations, the quorum is reduced accordingly.
Because of Members' other duties, a quorum often is not present on the House floor.
But any Member may insist that a quorum must participate in any vote that takes
place in the House. If a Member makes a point of order that a quorum is not present,
and the Speaker agrees, a series of bells ring on the House side of the Capitol
and in the House office buildings to alert Members to come to the Chamber and record
A bill may be introduced at any point during a two-year Congress. It will remain
eligible for consideration throughout the duration of that Congress until the Congress
ends or adjourns sine die.
The President has three choices:
- To sign it promptly, whereupon it becomes a law.
- The President may veto the bill, returning it to Congress with his stated objections
and without a signature of approval. In this case, Congress may override the veto
with a two-thirds vote in each House. The bill would then become a law despite the
- The President may hold it without taking action. In this case, it becomes law after
the expiration of 10 days (excluding Sundays) without the President's signature
if Congress is in session; or it does not become law if Congress has adjourned (this
is called a "pocket veto").
View the list of Presidential Vetoes,
The provisions of the law take effect immediately unless the law itself provides
for another date. The law will also specify which executive departments or agencies
are empowered to carry it out or enforce it. The actual written document is sent
to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), an independent government
agency, where it is given a number and published in individual form as a "slip law."
At the end of each session of Congress, these are consolidated in a bound volume
called U.S. Statutes at Large. In addition, all permanent, general laws currently
in force are included in the Code of Laws of the United States of America, commonly
called the U.S. Code. The Office of Law Revision Counsel, part of the institutional
structure of the House, is responsible for preparing and issuing annual supplements
to keep the Code up to date. The
Office of Law Revision Counsel provides information on the U.S. Code.
The Constitution (Article I, Section 8) empowers the Congress to levy taxes, collect
revenue, pay debts and provide for the general welfare; borrow money; regulate interstate
and foreign commerce; establish uniform rules of naturalization and bankruptcy;
coin money and regulate its value; punish counterfeits; establish a postal system;
enact patent and copyright laws; establish Federal courts inferior to the Supreme
Court; declare war; provide for Armed Forces; impeach and try Federal officers (Section
2 and 3); and to have exclusive legislative power over the District of Columbia.
In Article II, Section 2, the Senate is given the power to consent to ratification
of treaties and confirm the nomination of public officials. Congress is also given
the power to enact such laws as may be "necessary and proper" to implement its mandate
in Article I, and in certain amendments to the Constitution.
The Constitution (Article I, Section 5) provides that each House "determine the
Rules of its Proceedings." These resulting rules and procedures are spelled out
in detailed procedural manuals for each Chamber.
During the first session of each Congress, the
Office of the Parliamentarian publishes the
House Rules and
Manual, formally entitled Constitution, Jefferson's Manual,
and Rules of the House of Representatives. This document contains each clause
of the rules, a summary of recent changes in the House's rules, annotated texts
of the Constitution, excerpts from Thomas Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practice,
and provisions of law that establish procedures for the House to act on congressional
In addition to the House Rules, the Representatives are governed by the ways in
which these rules have been interpreted over the years and applied to various kinds
of activities. These
precedents include an exhaustive compilation of procedural rulings and interpretations,
accompanied by summaries of the events producing them and often including relevant
excerpts from the Congressional Record.
By Constitutional requirement, the House keeps a journal of its proceedings. The
House Journal does not report debates, it only reports the bare parliamentary
proceedings of the Chamber. In addition, the House Journal contains minimal
information about actions taken by the House when meeting as a Committee of the
Whole, because any action taken there is not official unless and until it is ratified
by the full House.
The Congressional Record contains a record, taken stenographically, of everything
said on the floor of both the House and the Senate, including roll call votes on
all questions. Members are permitted to edit and revise the transcripts of their
spoken remarks. An appendix contains material not spoken on the floor but inserted
by permission - referred to as the "extension of remarks." It also carries a brief
resume of the congressional activities of the previous day, as well as a future
legislative program and a list of scheduled committee hearings.
The House Journal and the
Congressional Record are available online via the Government Publishing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys).
In addition to the U.S. Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S.
Senate, the legislative branch includes the
Architect of the Capitol, the
Government Publishing Office (GPO), the
Library of Congress, and the legislative support agencies. The Architect's
principal duties involve the construction, maintenance, and renovation of the Capitol
Building as well as the congressional office buildings and other structures in the
Capitol complex. The GPO publishes the Congressional Record, congressional committee
hearings and reports, and other congressional documents, as well as a substantial
portion of executive branch publications. The Library of Congress, in addition to
providing library services, research and analysis to the Congress, is also viewed
as a national library but is not officially the national library. The three support
agencies include the
Congressional Budget Office (CBO),
Congressional Research Service (CRS) at the Library of Congress, and
Government Accountability Office (GAO). On occasion, temporary advisory commissions
are established and funded by the legislative branch.
The Vice President of the United States votes to break ties in the Senate.
Check out the Learning Center at the Clerk's
Kids in the House website. Here, students
are able to learn about the American government, House members and committees, House
history, and how laws are made.