Meetings of Congress Clause
The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.
Ever mindful of federalism and the separation of powers, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention believed that the scheduling of congressional sessions was a significant issue. There was no thought given to the British model, in which the executive called Parliament to meet. The Framers did allow the President to convene Congress in a special session for “extraordinary Occasions” (Article II, Section 3), but they fixed the date of Congress’s regular sessions to keep it free from executive control.
James Madison submitted that the “Legislature shall meet on the first Monday in December in every year” and the delegates added a provision to allow for a different date “appointed by law” (thus permitting the possibility of executive veto). At first, the delegates argued over the date on the basis of convenience or for extrinsic concerns. Gouverneur Morris moved to substitute May for December because the United States would likely legislate in response to Europe’s measures, which were generally planned during the winter and would likely arrive in the United States by spring. Madison changed his mind and stated that he also preferred May because the season would be more agreeable to traveling to and from the capital. In contrast, James Wilson and Oliver Ellsworth argued that requiring the legislature to assemble in December would be more convenient for private business, because most of the Members would be involved with agriculture during the spring and summer.
Edmund Randolph, however, turned the debate to concerns for the structural integrity of the polity. He noted that the state elections would better coincide with the December date, and the vote to require assembly in the month of May did not pass. The issue was not closed, however. Madison was in favor of annual meetings, but of leaving the date to “be fixed or varied by law.” Gouverneur Morris and Rufus King believed yearly meetings were not necessary, for there would not be enough legislative business for Congress to deal with annually.
Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts focused the delegates’ attention once again on the structural needs of the new government. He argued that the time should be fixed to prevent disputes from arising within the legislature, and to allow the states to adjust their elections to correspond with the fixed date. A fixed date also corresponded to the tradition in the states of having annual meetings. Finally, Gorham concluded that the legislative branch should be required to meet at least once a year to act as a check upon the executive department.
Ultimately, Article I, Section 4, Clause 2 bound legislative discretion and placed the requirement for annual legislative sessions “beyond the power of faction, and of party, of power, and of corruption,” according to Justice Joseph Story in Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833). In practice, prior to the passage of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, each numbered Congress existed from March 4 of the odd-numbered year to March 3 of the next odd-numbered year, but the regular sessions began on the first Monday in December and generally lasted well into spring.
Such an arrangement did not become controversial until the sixth Congress, elected in 1798 and controlled by Federalists, met in its second session in December 1800, after it was clear that Jefferson had won the presidency. Its sweeping legislative program embittered the new President, who sought the following year, with his new Republican majority, to undo what that previous Congress had wrought.