Congress' Early Organization Meetings
CRS Report for Congress
Congress’ Early Organization Meetings
Specialist on the Congress
Government and Finance Division
Since the mid-1970s, the House and Senate have convened early organization
meetings in November or December of even-numbered years to prepare for the start of
the new Congress in January.
The purposes of these meetings are both educational and organizational.
Educational sessions range from legislative procedures and staff hiring to current issues.
Organizational sessions elect class officers, party leaders, and chamber officers; name
committee representatives and other party officials; and select committee chairmen and
often committee members. Such actions are officially ratified at the start of the new
As the complexities of the problems facing America have increased, Congress has
responded the way hundreds of their constituents have, by going back to school. Early
organization and orientation have provided Members a “leg up” in addressing pressing
When the first Congress convened over 200 years ago, farmers and soldiers,
journalists and scientists, carpenters and statesmen travelled from throughout the colonies
to New York to take the oath of office as Members of the first Congress. They adopted
rules, organized the structure of their chambers and began legislating, each in accordance
with the Member’s own individual understanding of just how to do that and how to be
both a representative and a legislator, that is, how to be a Member of Congress.
There was no specific precedent to follow, no educational institution to attend to
explore the intricacies of the legislative process, no classes to take to practice the politics
of bicameralism and bipartisanship, no management consultant to teach them how to
administer their offices. And so, these Members, and the hundreds who followed them,
learned on the job, learned from their predecessors and each other, and learned from their
mistakes. As the nation grew and prospered, and the number of Members increased with
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“manifest destiny,” it became clear that “on the job training” was no longer sufficient.
The issues were becoming more complex, the procedures more intricate.
In the early 1970s, nearly 200 years after the first Members arrived to legislate,
Congress began to consider formalizing its pre-Congress preparations, both structural and
educational. The belief seemed to be that the sooner the organizational decisions were
made and the structure was in place, the faster the start Members would have in solving
the problems of the day. As well, the more Members knew about the intricacies and
complexities of those problems, the more sophisticated the deliberations would be, the
sooner those deliberations could begin, and the more comprehensive and appropriate the
eventual response would be.
Formalizing the Process
Accordingly, in 1974, pursuant to the adoption of H.Res. 988 (93rd Congress), the
Committee Reform Amendments of 1974, the House authorized early organizational
meetings for its Members. The Senate followed suit soon thereafter.
Speaker Carl Albert and Minority Leader Gerald Ford agreed, that during the
transition time between Congresses, preparation for the next Congress would be of
invaluable help in reducing the organizational and legislative congestion that normally
accompanies the start of a Congress. Prior to the convening of a new Congress
(somewhere between November 15 and December 20 of any even-numbered year),
Democratic party caucuses or Republican party conferences may be called by the Majority
and Minority Leaders after consultation with the Speaker. If done, the business is, among
other things, to choose party leaders and committee members. As well, Members can pick
up political tips, technical and administrative lessons, policy facts, figures and
interpretations, and a sense of the informal “rules of the game.” Members-elect receive
travel and per diem allowances, while reelected Members receive travel allowances if the
House has adjourned sine die. Both groups are expected to attend.
In the past nearly three decades, these meetings have become more formalized, more
comprehensive, more valued, and more necessary. In fact, these sessions go far beyond
those envisioned in 1974. Now, not only are there meetings for making organizational
decisions, but also ones for educational purposes. Now, not only are they for Members,
but some are for Members and staff together while others are for staff only. Some are for
Members and their spouses, some even are limited to spouses of newly elected Members.
Now, not only are they sponsored by the party caucus and conferences, but by the
respective campaign committees, the House Administration and Senate Rules and
Administration Committees, Harvard University, the Congressional Management
Foundation, the Congressional Research Service, the Heritage Foundation, and numerous
informal groups both on and off the Hill. Now, not only are they held in Washington, DC,
but in Cambridge, MA, Annapolis, MD, and Williamsburg, VA, as well. Each is well
attended, and each pays handsome dividends for Members who attend.
The educational sessions available range from legislative procedures, both in
committee and on the floor, to how to hire a staff. They cover the broad range of current
issues from defense to the environment to agriculture, from the specifics of a particular
weapons system to the best method of reducing the federal deficit. They are taught by
current Members, former Members, government practitioners, and academic experts.
They focus on the substance of issues, previous attempts at legislative changes, the
Administration’s position and the outlook for action in the current Congress. Numerous
interest groups provide information for consideration, as do the party leadership.
The organizational sessions serve as the first introduction to the Congress and to
each other for the new Members and attest to the value and intent of the early meetings
envisioned in 1974. Accordingly, before the end of the year, class officers are elected,
party leaders selected, and chamber officers, such as the chaplain, chosen. Regional
representatives to steering and policy committees, designees to the committees on
committees, and other party officials are named. Chairmen of selected committees are
elected and members of those committees are often chosen. Each of these actions is then
subject only to official ratification at the start of the Congress. Room selection drawings
and room assignments are also accomplished during these sessions.
Each January of a recent odd-numbered year, Congress has begun work earlier than
it used to. Both chambers immediately make remaining committee assignments, while
committees hold their organizational sessions to establish subcommittees, make
subcommittee assignments, hire staff, and adopt committee rules. Accordingly, when the
scores of measures introduced on the first day are referred to committee, Congress is
ready to get to work on its legislative agenda without having to spend time on
organizational and administrative matters.