Every two years, as mandated in Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution, the U.S. House of Representatives starts a new legislative session, known as a Congress. Using longstanding precedent and a few highly visible artifacts, the House embarks on the pomp and ritual of its biennial Opening Day.
Unlike the Senate, in which only one-third of its Members are up for election every two years, the House starts anew—reconstituting itself by electing a Speaker, swearing-in the 435 voting Members-elect, and adopting new rules. Visitors and Members’ families arrive to watch the ceremonies, and gallery passes become treasured souvenirs of the experience.
By a tradition that dates to the earliest Congresses, the Clerk of the House from the preceding Congress calls the chamber to order and presides until a Speaker is elected. In recent Congresses, a designated Clerk’s gavel comes out of storage for the occasion to commemorate the “gaveling in” of the new Congress. As on every other day when the House is in session, the House Mace and the silver inkstand are displayed on the rostrum. The Mace, representing the authority of the House, has been in the chamber since 1841. The inkstand is even older, commissioned by the House soon after the Capitol was rebuilt following the War of 1812.
After the Clerk gavels the new Congress into session, the House Chaplain offers a prayer. The Clerk then leads the Members-elect, staff, and spectators in the galleries in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Next, the Clerk announces the receipt of the credentials of the 435 voting Members-elect, and directs a reading clerk to call the roll to verify that there is a quorum, or majority, present. Members-elect register their presence by using their voting cards at the electronic voting machines throughout the chamber.
Once all the Members-elect are accounted for, the Clerk announces the credentials of the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico (when applicable because the Resident Commissioner is elected every 4 years) and the Delegates from each territory—the District of Columbia, Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. When applicable, the Clerk also announces the deaths or resignations of Members-elect since the general election.
The House then moves to its next order of business: the election of the Speaker. In modern practice, shortly after the general election, the Republican Conference and the Democratic Caucus, the members of the major parties, each nominate a candidate for Speaker. On Opening Day, these candidates are nominated on the House Floor by the Conference and Caucus chairs; occasionally, other individuals are nominated directly on the floor. After the candidates have been announced, the House proceeds to a viva voce vote—a roll call vote taken verbally, rather than using the electronic voting system.
Once the votes have been tabulated and certified, the newly elected Speaker is escorted to the Speaker’s chair at the top of the rostrum by a bipartisan delegation of Members appointed by the Clerk. The ceremonial chair, impressively scaled with a scroll-back, dates to 1941. Like the Clerk’s gavel, the chair sits on the rostrum only for Opening Day—used by a dozen Speakers beginning with Sam Rayburn.
After being introduced by the minority party leader and making a speech, the Speaker takes the oath of office (administered by the Dean of the House—the longest serving Member) and, then, in turn, administers the oath of office to all the Members-elect. Once the constitutional requirement of taking the oath of office is complete, the House moves on to the rest of its busy opening day agenda: the announcement of party leaders, the election of a slate of officers, and the adoption of rules of procedure.
Guided by precedent and tradition—and utilizing some historic artifacts—the House is ready for business, and the new Congress begins its work.
Sources: Jefferson’s Manual and Rules of the House of Representatives (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office); U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 2; Donald A. Ritchie, The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Jeffery A. Jenkins, Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).Follow @USHouseHistory