Understanding Terms and Sessions of Congress – The 112th Congress

A term of Congress lasts for two years. Each term begins at 12:00 noon on January 3rd of odd-numbered years, approximately two months after general elections are held. However, the 112th Congress will convene on January 5, 2011. A complete list of all previous Terms of Congress is available at TermsofCongress.com.

Pink House Downtown 112 Red Porch White Handrail
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In contemporary practice, a Congressional term is comprised of first and second sessions. The first session of Congress takes place within the first calendar year that is covered by that term (an odd-numbered year). The second session takes place in the second calendar year that is covered that that Congressional term (an even-numbered year). These annual sessions serve to fulfill the 20th Amendment that requires Congress to assemble “at least once in every year.”

A session of Congress continues until it adjourns the session without any day to reconvene or return–adjournment sine die. At the start of the second session, legislative work picks up where it left off during the first session, and all unfinished work from the first session remains unfinished until the second session begins. At the end of the second session, all legislation that has not been passed and is still in the legislative process dies and must be introduced once the next Term of Congress convenes. Congressional Deskbook, by Michael L. Koempel and Judy Schneider

In some instances, Congress may convene other sessions during the two year term. The Constitution also makes it possible for the president to reconvene Congress either within or between sessions. The president can sometimes use the threat of calling Congress back to induce Congress to provide extra effort toward completing specific legislative actions.

If Congress reconvenes following a general election it will not adjourn sine die prior to the election. When Congress reconvenes following the election, the work period that follows is generally known as a lame-duck session.

Congress also sometimes has closed or executive sessions, which are usually closed committee meetings, but can also be held in the House and Senate chambers. In these proceedings, the galleries are closed both to the public and press. Executive sessions can be convened for the purpose of discussing issues related to national security, sensitive executive communications or confidential information. Although secret sessions are rare, they do sometimes happen. One of the most notable instances is in the event of impeachment trials.

To learn more about how Congress works, consider these courses held in DC: Congressional Dynamics and the Legislative Process, Advanced Legislative Strategies, or our Capitol Hill Workshop.

Reference: Congressional Deskbook, by Michael L. Koempel and Judy Schneider, Section 7.20; Terms and Sessions of Congress.

For detailed information about the legislative process, see

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