Can the president simply shut down Congress on a whim?

Some people think he has this power. As one commenter put it in a Facebook post, “Article 2 Section 3 during extraordinary circumstances the president can send Congress away.”

This demonstrates how failing to read constitutional language carefully can lead to gross misunderstandings of government power.

The relevant clause in Article II Sec. 3 reads:

“He [the president] may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper.”

The plain reading of the clause reveals that our Facebook commenter has grossly misunderstood the authority the president can exercise over Congress.

The clause delegates two distinct powers to the president.

1. He can convene Congress “on extraordinary Occasions.” When the Constitution was drafted, convene meant exactly what we understand it to mean today. The relevant definition from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1785 ) reads: “to assemble for any public purpose.”  This clause empowers the president to convene Congress in the event of an extraordinary circumstance. The purpose is to give the president the ability to call Congress into session in order to address something that needs immediate action, for instance, a military attack on the U.S. Keep in mind, nobody in the founding era imagined that Congress would meet nearly year-round as it does today.

2. He can adjourn Congress – but only under one condition – when there is “Disagreement between them [the houses of Congress], with Respect to the Time of Adjournment.” This clause serves as a check on Art. 1 Sec. 5: “Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting.” In effect, this empowers the president to serve as the referee if the House and Senate can’t agree on when to adjourn.

The power to convene Congress is separate and distinct from the power to adjourn the legislative body. There exists no power for the president to simply “send Congress away.” He can call Congress into session on extraordinary occasions, but he can only adjourn the body if the two chambers fail to agree on an adjournment time on their own.

In fact, the Constitution would have never been ratified had the president been given the authority “to send Congress away.” King George outraged the American colonists when he used his power to dissolve or suspend colonial legislative bodies. Thomas Jefferson protested this power in his list of causes in the Declaration of Independence.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

The founding generation would have never given that kind of extensive power to the president. They didn’t want a king.

Mike Maharrey