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Legislative Faqs

expand1. When is the House in session?

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.

expand2. How can you tell what is currently happening on the House floor?

Activities on the House Floor are updated on-line throughout the legislative day. View the current floor schedule.

expand3. What are the customary proceedings when the House of Representatives meets?

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 the general parliamentary procedure.

expand4. What is the difference between a term of Congress and a session of Congress?

A term of Congress is two years in duration commencing on January 3rd of each odd-numbered year. A session of Congress, however, is the annual meeting with each term being divided into two sessions. When Congress is actually meeting, it is said to be "in session."

expand5. What is the difference between a joint session and a joint meeting?

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.

expand6. How do Representatives obtain permission to speak?

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 requested.

expand7. How do Representatives introduce bills?

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.

expand8. Are there time limitations on debate on the House floor?

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.

expand9. How are record votes taken in the Congress?

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.

expand10. What is a quorum?

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 their presence.

expand11. When does a bill become "dead" or no longer open to consideration?

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.

expand12. What courses are open to the President when a bill is presented to him?

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 President's veto.
  • 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, 1789-present.

expand13. What happens to a bill after it becomes a law?

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 Councel provides information on the U.S. Code.

expand14. What are the powers of Congress as provided in the Constitution?

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.

expand15. Are there rules or precedents that govern the House?

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 House Committee on Rules 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 disapproval resolutions.

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.

  • Deschler's Precedents of the U.S. House of Representatives identify precedents and practices of the House from 1936-1986. Compilation of volumes 1-9 of this series was initially undertaken by the late House parliamentarian Lewis Deschler. Precedents and practices since 1986 have been published under the title Deschler-Brown Precedents of the U.S. House of Representatives, which begins with volume 10. Currently, the series is compiled by parliamentarian emeritus William Holmes Brown.
  • Hinds' and Cannon's Precedents of the U.S. House of Representatives provides an historical overview and in-depth description of House precedents during the period 1789 through 1936. This multivolume series was compiled by two House parliamentarians who later became Congressmen (Clarence A. Cannon, D-MO, and Asher S. Hinds, R-ME).

    The Government Printing Office provides full text of Deschler's, Hinds' and Cannon's Precedents.

expand16. Are the proceedings of the House published?

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 GPO Access.

expand17. What organizations are included in the legislative branch?

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 Printing 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 the General Accounting Office (GAO). On occasion, temporary advisory commissions are established and funded by the legislative branch.

expand18. What happens when a Senate vote is tied?

The Vice President of the United States votes to break ties in the Senate.

expand19. Are there any resources for students to learn about the legislative process?

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.

Office of the Clerk - U.S. Capitol, Room H154, Washington, DC 20515-6601
(202) 225-7000 | info.clerkweb@mail.house.gov