Congress’s first Opening Day on March 4, 1789, was a surprisingly muted affair, given that most Members-elect had yet to arrive at Federal Hall in time to establish a quorum. Although the Constitution initially set March 4 as the official start of a new Congress, most Congresses for the first 150 years of the nation’s history organized in December to accommodate extended travel time to and from the Capitol. The Twentieth Amendment, adopted in 1933, shortened the period between the end of one Congress and the start of the next by moving Opening Day to January 3 of every odd year.
Each Opening Day in the House of Representatives is an exciting, often historic, event. Recently elected Members, often accompanied by their families, swear their oaths of office and snap pictures with new colleagues and congressional leaders. Special furniture and House artifacts are brought out of storage for an event that happens only once every two years.
Official business that day includes electing a Speaker via the traditional roll call vote and swearing in the Members-elect. Occasionally in House history, such basic requirements have extended well beyond Opening Day. Organizing the House also means electing officials like the Clerk and Sergeant at Arms and voting on a new package of Rules that will govern debate in the House in the new session.
This Edition for Educators throws the House Chamber doors wide open for Opening Day!
Firsts Among Members
Many Opening Days see exciting new firsts for Congress as new Members take their seats. This page of Member Firsts has enough factoids to satisfy any trivia buff.
Oath of Office
Oaths of office and allegiance have been features of government for centuries. Today, Members of the House take an oath to uphold the Constitution in a group swearing-in on the House Floor on Opening Day of a new Congress. Often, they later pose for ceremonial photos individually with the Speaker following the official swearing-in.
Gavel of the Clerk of the House
The first day of a Congress is mainly business, with a side of tradition. Since 1999, this gavel, known as the Clerk’s Gavel, is taken out of storage for a single day to begin, or “gavel in,” the new Congress.
The Opening of the First Congress in New York City
The First Federal Congress was scheduled to meet in New York City on March 4, 1789—the date originally set by the outgoing Continental Congress in 1788—though it failed to achieve the quorum necessary to conduct business.
The Historic 54th Congress
On December 2, 1895, the 54th Congress (1895–1897) convened a little more than a year after what proved to be a historic midterm election. Following the onset of an economic depression in the mid-1890s, voters decimated the rolls of the House Democrats, who had held a nearly 100-seat majority in the 53rd Congress (1893–1895); the party lost 125 seats or 35 percent of the total House membership. Republicans, bolstered by a record-setting class of 178 total first-term Members, ultimately picked up 130 seats (36 percent of the House).
A Historic Change in the Oath of Office
On April 15, 1929, Speaker Nicholas Longworth of Ohio broke with tradition and swore in all House Members simultaneously; previously, Members were sworn in by state delegations. “The Chair has observed that under our general practice, where groups are sworn separately, the remainder of the House is apt to be in pretty complete disorder,” the Speaker observed on the opening day of the 71st Congress (1929–1931). “It will more comport with the dignity and solemnity of this ceremony if he [the Speaker] administers the oath to all Members of the body at once”—an announcement that was met with applause.
Opening Day Traditions of a New Congress
Tina Tate, the first woman director of the House Radio-TV Gallery, discusses the traditions of a change in Congress from the perspective of the press.
Joseph Rainey Election Certificate
Joseph Rainey, the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, was sworn in on December 12, 1870. This election certificate confirmed his 1874 election to the 44th Congress (1875–1877) for a third full term and is signed by members of the board of state canvassers for South Carolina. After every congressional election, each state certifies its delegation of U.S. Representatives-elect. The Clerk uses the certificates to determine a Member’s right to a congressional seat and thus compose the roll of Members for each Congress.
The First Congresswoman’s First Day: April 2, 1917
It was only natural that Jeannette Rankin of Montana repeatedly made history on April 2, 1917, the day she was sworn in as the first woman to serve in Congress. By shattering that first gender barrier—taking the Oath of Office—she quickly laid the groundwork for other milestones. That day she also became the first woman to sponsor a bill in Congress (an amendment to the U.S. Constitution for women’s suffrage) and later listened as President Woodrow Wilson asked the House and Senate to declare war on Imperial Germany, propelling the U.S. into the First World War.
Inside the Chamber on Opening Day
Using longstanding precedent and a few highly visible artifacts, the House embarks on the 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.
Advice to New Members
On March 6, 1941, Alabama Representative Luther Patrick gave advice to new Members from the House Floor. His 32-point list detailed the dos and don’ts of congressional behavior. If only he had taken his own advice.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory