The first Monday in December! In more recent times, these five words conjure up images of members rushing to get away from Capitol Hill, heading to their home states or off to foreign lands. Immediately after World War II, to ensure that members would be long gone by December, Congress enacted legislation requiring both houses to adjourn no later than July 30 of each year.
Such concerns would surely have amazed the eighteenth-century framers of the U.S. Constitution. Tied to an agriculturally based economy, with its cycle of planting, growing and harvesting, these farmer-statesmen considered the dormant month of December as a particularly good time for members of Congress to begin, rather than end, their legislative sessions.
Accordingly, they provided in Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution that "The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by law appoint a different day" [for the upcoming session].
In September 1788, after the necessary three-quarters of the states ratified the Constitution, the existing Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, passed such a law, setting March 4, 1789, as the convening date of the First Congress.
March 4 thereby became the starting point for members’ terms of office, while future legislative sessions would begin in early December.
In its closing days, however, the First Congress provided that the Second Congress would convene several weeks early, on October 24, 1791.
Not until the Third Congress met on December 2, 1793, did a first session begin according to the Constitution’s "First Monday in December" timetable.
For the next 140 years, Congress generally followed this pattern, although presidents, facing national emergencies or other "extraordinary occasions," exercised their constitutional prerogative to "convene both Houses, or either of them," at other times.
Outgoing presidents routinely used this provision to issue proclamations that called the Senate into a brief session at the March 4 start of their successor’s term to confirm cabinet and other key executive nominations.
With the 1933 adoption of the Constitution’s Twentieth Amendment, setting January 3 as the annual meeting date, the first Monday in December became just another relic of the nation’s eighteenth-century agrarian society.
From 1946 until 1990, when Congress repealed the “mandatory” July 30 adjournment as an unattainable goal, members found themselves still in session in December during 19 of those 44 years.