Convening of Congress

[The President] may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper....

Article II, Section 3

Under British practice, the king could convene or dissolve Parliament at will. In the Declaration of Independence, it was one of the grounds for separation from England:

He has called together legislative bodies at places, unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the repository of the public records; that he had dissolved representative bodies, for opposing his invasions of the rights of the people; and after such dissolutions, he had refused to reassemble them for a long period of time.

The Framers of the Constitution insisted, therefore, that Congress's right to convene must be independent of the will of the executive. Article I, Section 4, Clause 2. "Each house," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1790, had a "natural right to meet when and where it should think best."

Nonetheless, the Framers also understood that the government must be able to meet exigent circumstances and therefore gave the President the very limited power to convene Congress "on extraordinary occasions." Justice Joseph Story indicated in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States that the President's need to conduct foreign relations effectively would be the primary motive for convening Congress. He gave as examples the need "to repel foreign aggressions, depredations, and direct hostilities; to provide adequate means to mitigate, or overcome unexpected calamities; to suppress insurrections; and to provide for innumerable other important exigencies, arising out of the intercourse and revolutions among nations."

Beginning with John Adams in 1797, the President has convened both the House and the Senate twenty-seven times, normally for crises such as war, economic emergency, or critical legislation. In addition, the President has called the Senate to meet to confirm nominations. With the ratification of the Twentieth Amendment, which brought forward the date on which Congress convenes, and with the practice of Congress to remain in session twelve months out of the year, there is practically no need for the President to call extraordinary sessions anymore. President Harry S. Truman called the last special session on July 15, 1948.

Even more important to the Framers was limiting the power of the executive to dissolve the legislature. They understood that that power was among the quickest routes to tyranny. Under the Constitution, therefore, "the President can only adjourn the national Legislature in the single case of disagreement about the time of adjournment." The Federalist No. 69 (Alexander Hamilton). It is only an administrative power, one that the President has never had to exercise.

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David F. Forte
Professor of Law
Cleveland-Marshall College of Law