Convening of Congress

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution

Convening of Congress

Article II, Section 3

[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....

Under British practice, the king could convene or dissolve Parliament at will. This powerful right was naturally a source of tension between the crown and Parliament. Kings wielded this power as they wished but would have to re-convene Parliament when they wanted more money. The right to dissolve or convene Parliaments bred dangerous instability and was one of the driving forces of the English Civil War (1642–1651), which was, at bottom, a war of institutions: the Parliament against the crown.

The experience of England was fresh in the mind of the American founders when they issued the Declaration of Independence, for in many ways the Americans believed they were replicating the Glorious Revolution of 1688:

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the repository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures. He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for, opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people. He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected. . . .

That American statesmen learned well from the experience of England can also be seen in the state constitutions that were drafted between the Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Convention. Under nine of the state constitutions adopted during that period, the governor had no power to “prorogue, dissolve, or adjourn” the legislature.

With the Framers’ knowledge of English history, their experience with King George III, and the practice of the states, it is no surprise that the decision to give the executive of the United States little authority over when and where Congress should meet appeared to pass the Convention with no debate, following the proposal first made in the Committee of Detail. The Constitution insists 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 (1833) 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 26, 1948.

Of course, even more important to the Framers was limiting the power of the executive to dissolve the legislature. They understood from English history that such power was among the quickest routes to tyranny. Under the Constitution, therefore, as Alexander Hamilton explained, “[t]he President can only adjourn the national Legislature in the single case of disagreement about the time of adjournment.” The Federalist No. 69. It is only an administrative power, one that the president has never had to exercise.

David F. Forte

Professor, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law


Curtis A. Bradley & Martin S. Flaherty, Executive Power Essentialism and Foreign Affairs, 102 Mich. L. Rev. 545 (2004)

Christopher Hibbert, THE STORY OF ENGLAND (1992)