Guest Essayist: Scot Faulkner, Executive Director, The Dreyfuss Initiative on Civics

Article 1, Section 5, Clause 3

Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy; and 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.

Documenting public processes have been part of governing since the rise of early civilizations.  From the Sumerians in 2500 BC, to ancient Egypt and Babylon, governments have kept journals of their actions and public meetings. 

The Founding Fathers knew the importance of maintaining a Journal of Proceedings from the English House of Commons. James Wilson, a member of the Committee on Detail which compiled the provisions of the draft Constitution, was a follower of the great British parliamentary scholar Sir William Blackstone.  He quoted Blackstone’s Oxford 1756 lectures, which underscored the importance of a public record for holding officials accountable, “In the House of Commons, the conduct of every member is subject to the future censure of his constituents, and therefore should be openly submitted to their inspection.”

The Constitution’s “Journal of Proceedings” wording flows from the Articles of Confederation. In March 1781 the Continental Congress approved the following provision: “…and shall publish the Journal of their proceedings monthly, except such parts thereof relating to treaties, alliances or military operations, as in their judgment require secrecy; and the yeas and nays of the delegates of each state on any question shall be entered on the Journal, when it is desired by any delegate; and the delegates of a state, or any of them, at his or their request shall be furnished with a transcript of the said Journal, except such parts as are above excepted, to lay before the legislatures of the several states.”

But what is the Journal?  Every day the Congress approves the “Journal” of the previous session.  This is the official outline of actions taken during the previous meeting of each Chamber, like a set of minutes.  It is codified in Section 49 of Thomas Jefferson’s 1812 Parliamentary Manual that governs Congressional operations.  Members of Congress do not approve the Congressional Record.  That transcript of House and Senate proceedings has a colorful history.

The transcribing of Congressional debate was begun by private publishers.  House and Senate proceedings, roll calls, debates, and other records were recorded and published in The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States (1789–1824), the Register of Debates in Congress (1824–1837), and the Congressional Globe (1833–1873).

During the 36th Congress [December 5, 1859 to March 3, 1861] it was decided that federal funds should be used for transcribing Congressional proceedings and that the Government Printing Office should publish the verbatim record. The Congressional Globe was contracted to provide stenographers in the House and Senate Chambers. In 1873, the Globe’s contract was not renewed, and the Congressional Record was born.  The Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate now oversee documenting and transcribing the verbatim proceedings of their respective chambers.

The Congressional Record is still not an accurate verbatim transcript of the proceedings and debate for each Chamber.  Members routinely insert remarks and documents after the fact.  While these “revised and extended remarks” help Members explain their actions, they are considered “secondary authorities” when it comes to determining legislative intent.  Secondary authorities are generally afforded less weight than the actual texts of primary authority during Judicial review.

The chronicling of Congress has come almost full circle.  While the Congressional Record remains the official transcript of proceedings, CSPAN, a nonprofit private entity, provides live coverage of each Chamber.  The cameras are owned and maintained by the Architect of the Capitol, while their operations and broadcasts are operated by staffs of the Chief Administrative Officer in the House and the Secretary of the Senate.  CSPAN receives the signal and airs it on its various cable television channels.  Live House broadcasting began on March 19, 1979 while Senate coverage commenced on June 2, 1986. 

Article 1, Section 5, Clause 4

Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 made sure the two Congressional chambers had equity when it came of the operations of the Legislative Branch.  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. The formal end of a Congress is when the Legislative Branch adjourns “Sine Die” (from the Latin “without day”) meaning “without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing”.  The Constitution [Article 2, Section 3] also grants the President the authority to summon the Congress for a special session if circumstances require.  The Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution also sets a formal start and end time for each Congress.

These various provisions have led to numerous unintended consequences.

One of the first instances was when the Southern states seceded from the Union.  They deprived the sitting Congress of a quorum.  In order to continue governing, President Abraham Lincoln issued the very first Presidential Order on April 15, 1861, Executive Order 1.

The most complex consequence of Clause 4 relates to when Congress takes a recess and when it adjourns. A recess is a temporary halt to activity on the floor. Everything stops, and when the recess ends, the chamber resumes from where it left off. A recess might last 10 minutes or it might last weeks. The length of time does not matter. An adjournment is a formal end to business in the chamber, and upon return the chamber does not resume from where it left off. Just like a recess an adjournment can be for one minute or for three weeks. However, unlike a recess, an adjournment creates a new legislative day (this is more relevant to Senate proceedings).

Certain things happen, under the standing rules of the House and Senate, precisely because it is a new legislative day. Much of it is routine business: the reading of the previous day’s journal, filing of reports, delivery of messages from the House, etc., but there are also consequential things.  In the Senate, during the first two hours of each new legislative day, motions to proceed are not debatable, and therefore cannot be filibustered.

Any formal break in Legislative Branch activity also opens the door for a President to take certain actions.  This includes making appointments which require Senate confirmation, and “pocket vetoing” legislation.  A pocket veto means that the Congress cannot override the veto because it is not in session.  An adjournment of the Legislative Branch also allows the President to reconvene Congress for a specific action [Article 2, Section 3].  Congressional leaders have devised ways to avoid inadvertently unleashing Presidential activism.

The Congress can take a break from legislative activity, and still avoid a formal recess or adjournment, by meeting in a “pro forma” session. Pro forma means “for the sake of formality”.  In recent years pro forma sessions have prevented Presidents from making recess appointments, and in the case of President George W. Bush in 2008, deprived him calling a special session to reauthorize the Protect America Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

As long as a Member convenes either the House or Senate to formally open and close a session there is no recess or adjournment.  Members sometimes compete to see how fast they can conduct a pro forma session.  The record is currently held by Senate Jack Reed of Rhode Island who completed the task in 12 seconds.

Scot Faulkner served as the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives.  He earned a Masters in Public Administration from American University, and B.A. in Government from Lawrence University.  He is the Executive Director of The Dreyfuss Initiative on civics



11 replies
  1. Cathy Gillespie
    Cathy Gillespie says:

    Scot, thank you for joining us today as Guest Essayist on Article 1, Section 5, Clauses 3 & 4! I have worked in and around Congress for over 25 years, and I have always found the adjournment procedure and requirements quite confusing! Your essay today clearly explains it!

    While we all are aware of the basic checks and balances built into our system of government, the layers and depth the founders inserted into the structure shows an amazing amount of vision and attention to detail! The requirement that either House may not adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other helps ensure that one legislative body may not arbitraily abdicate their responsibility.

    Of course “We The People,” are the ultimate check and balance in the system – and the daily journal, now with the help of CSPAN, is critical to our being informed. Constituting America Founder and Co-Chair Janine Turner loves this John Adams quote: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” Your essay today helps us with our knowledge base! Thank you!!

    Cathy Gillespie

  2. Janine Turner
    Janine Turner says:

    Mr. Faulkner,

    I thank you for your remarkably enlightening essay today. I have to say I am just loving this forum! It is fascinating to learn about such things as the differences between recess and adjournment, pro forma sessions, pocket vetos, as well as the history of the Congressional Journal. It is interesting to note that the original journals were operated by private entities, as well as the genesis of CSPAN. It is also interesting that Prsident Lincoln enacted the first Congressional Order.

    I am curious as to where one can read these Congressional journals that are supposed to be open to the public. I am also curious what the most recent rule is regarding making bills readily available for the public to read. I know that Thomas Jefferson was an advocate for such transparency because his quote on such a matter was incorporated into one of James Madison’s Federalist Papers.

    Thanks again,
    God Bless,
    Janine Turner

  3. Barb Zakszewski
    Barb Zakszewski says:

    Very informative reading today. It is most interesting to see that there are always ways to get around every rule. witness the Genius behind the Vote in Wisconsin today.. I guess there is always more than one way to skin a cat!! I too love the John Adams quote ““Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” Knowledge is power and we MUST know what we are defending!!! thank you all for this wonderful forum..

  4. Scot Faulkner
    Scot Faulkner says:

    Dear Barb:

    Thank you for your vote of confidence in this forum.

    My favorite quote about “ways to skin the cat” comes from George Washington Plunkitt – “What is the Constitution among friends”. Plunkett was a ward boss for New York’s Tammany Hall and was interviewed by journalist William Riordon for his 1905 book “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall”.

    Abolitionist Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) cautioned, “Eternal Vigilance is the price of liberty”.

    Citizens need to hold power accountable at all levels of government. Adequate public notice before the fact, following the rules during the act, and a complete record of the proceeding are cornerstones to assuring the voice of the people is heard and heeded.

  5. Barb Zakszewski
    Barb Zakszewski says:

    Scott – I am very active in politics at the local level and also worked on various Republican campaigns throughout the years. I also write a column for a local on-line newsletter and have been known to write a letter or two to the Editor.. I truly believe that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. If we look away for even a second or too.. you can see what happens. I have always encourage everyone I meet, especially now to learn as much as they can. I also encourage everyone I know to visit this site.. Again, thank you, Janine and Cathy for this wonderful site!!

  6. Cutler
    Cutler says:

    HAHA…CSPAN… great idea in my opinion…most boring tv show to watch…ever! But now that I have a better idea of what it’s for, maybe I’ll watch it again.

    • Kay
      Kay says:

      Unfortunately, I have to catch up with this project, am so behind. Just wanted to say that we did not have cable on our television years ago. When my husband and I went away and stayed in a hotel, one of the first things I wanted to do was watch CSPAN! Is that nerdy or what???

  7. Scot Faulkner
    Scot Faulkner says:


    Thank you for your activism. Most studies show that only 3% of Americans are active in their communities: write letters to the editor, attend school board meetings or zoning hearings, or volunteer for community or political efforts. Only 42% voted in the 2010 elections. We must develop a more engaged electorate to hold power accountable and preserve our civic culture for future generations.

  8. Rochelle
    Rochelle says:

    Once again, thank you for the insight into these Article, Section and clauses. I find that our original Constitution is pretty straightforward, but watching news coverage of the days sessions – it seems confusing. But I like Mr. Faulkner’s explanation. I too like the use of CSPAN to help We The People watch the proceedings and I did not know it began in 1979 recording the House live. Thanks for that factoid. Why did it take till 1986 to cover the Senate?
    Again, thank you Mr. Faulkner for your essay. Thank you Janine and Cathy!! These essays help me make sure what I’m teaching the students in the club is on target and then I get to add to it as I learn something new.

    • Ralph T. Howarth, Jr.
      Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:

      Why the Senate took so long? Of the top of my head, it was because it was the more deliberative body that was less procedural than the House where often issues get mulled together in a bill riding fashion moreso than the House. The House had rules where it was easier to follow an agenda; but the Senate has had more liberty to change there deliberations and agenda more quickly. That alone makes it difficult to cover and document what is going on in the Senate in real time. The Senate also is tasked with more things of secrecy or discretion such as ratifying treaties and other international measures so there are times where the deliberations are closed often to the public.


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