The House of Representatives reorganizes itself every two years. At the beginning of each new Congress, the new Members of the House of Representatives are sworn into office, the Speaker of the House and House Officers are chosen, and the House Rules are adopted. The first day of a new Congress is a lot like the first day of a new school year—there are things to be organized, old friends to catch up with, and new friends to meet. So what happens on Congress’s first day?
The House Convenes
The Constitution states that each new Congress must convene, or assemble, for the first time at noon on January 3. However, sometimes a law is passed by the previous Congress to allow the new Congress to start on a different day. This may happen if January 3rd falls on a Friday or a weekend. Because it is the first day, there are many positions that have not been assigned yet. The House Officers—the Clerk, the Chief Administrative Officer, the Sergeant at Arms, and the Chaplain—from the previous Congress continue with their responsibilities until new Officers can be elected later in the day.
The House Is Called to Order
On a normal day the Speaker of the House calls the House to order, but because no one has been elected to that position yet, the Clerk will perform the duty for today. If the Clerk is absent, the responsibility falls to the Sergeant at Arms.
Once the House has been called to order, the Chaplain offers a prayer, and everyone present recites the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Roll Is Called
The Clerk announces the receipt of the credentials of the 435 Members and asks a Reading Clerk to call the roll of all Members to be sure there is a quorum. Members use their official voting cards in the electronic voting machines to let the Reading Clerk know they are there.
Now that all Members are accounted for, the Clerk announces the receipt of the credentials of the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico and of the Delegates (one each) from the District of Columbia, Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). At this time the Clerk will also announce any deaths or resignations of Members since the general election.
The Speaker Is Elected
The Speaker is the leader of the House. The selection of a Speaker is very important because if something were to happen to the President and Vice President of the United States, the Speaker of the House would become President. Candidates for Speaker are nominated from the House Floor by the chairmen of their parties. Traditionally, one candidate from the majority party and one candidate from the minority party are selected. The candidates are elected by the Republican Conference and the Democratic Caucus at their organizational meetings.
Once the candidates have been nominated, a viva voce roll call vote is held and the Clerk announces the election of the Speaker. The newly elected Speaker is announced by the Sergeant at Arms, escorted to the Speaker’s chair by a group of Members appointed by the Clerk, and presented to the House by the unsuccessful candidate for Speaker. From the Rostrum, the Speaker addresses the House before being administered the oath of office by the dean of the House.
The Members Take the Oath of Office
After taking the oath of office, the Speaker then administers the oath of office to all Members-elect. The non-voting Delegates and the Resident Commissioner also take the oath of office. Article VI of the Constitution mandates that all Members-elect take the oath to become full Members of Congress. The oath reads:
I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God.
The Parties Announce Their Leaders
House party leaders are elected every two years in secret balloting during the Democratic Caucus or Republican Conference. After the oath of office, the House Majority Leader and House Minority Leader are reported to the Speaker and the Congress. Following the announcement of the party leaders, the chairmen of the Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus announce the names of those elected Majority Whip and Minority Whip.
The House Officers Are Elected
Now that the House leadership is in place, it is time to elect the House administrative officers–the Clerk, the Sergeant at Arms, the Chief Administrative Officer, and the Chaplain.
The chairman of the majority party conference offers a resolution nominating its candidates for House officer positions. As part of the process, the minority party will suggest its own list of candidates as an amendment to the majority party’s resolution, although the majority party’s candidates usually win the election. Once all candidates have been named, the vote is held.
Congress Is Ready for Business
After House Leadership and Officers are announced, the House and Senate majority and minority leaders call the President with the news that Congress is ready to begin its work. The Clerk lets the President know whom the House has elected as Speaker and as Clerk.
The House Rules Are Adopted
Each party offers suggestions for the House Rules. These are the rules the Members of the House of Representatives will follow when on the House Floor. The majority party leads a one-hour debate on the rules before offering a motion to end the debate. At that point, the minority party can offer suggestions for changes in the rules, but the majority party’s version of the rules usually prevails. The House adopts the new rules of procedure which will be followed for the length of the Congress.
A Daily Meeting Time Is Established
After adopting its new rules, the House establishes a time for daily meetings. This time is determined through a resolution, typically offered by the chairman of the House Rules Committee, and must be renewed for each session of Congress.
Other Opening Day Events
Although all official business of the first day has been completed, Congress may attend to routine organizational business on opening day as well. A resolution calling for a joint session of Congress during the President’s State of the Union Address is traditionally passed, while a resolution allowing the Speaker to designate a federal judge may also be passed. The Speaker may also wish to announce policies on certain House practices. Typically, the parties begin selecting candidates for positions on House committees.