Before adjourning for Christmas and the New Year holiday, it passed a resolution that provided for the Senate to adjourn sine die.

Although many laws might sound like gibberish to non-lawyers (and even to many lawyers, for that matter), “sine die” is not. It’s Latin for “without a day”. The term is used to describe an adjournment when the date to reconvene is not specified, when Congress intends to leave town for the last time in a year.

When Americans go to the polls for Federal elections every two years, they do not just elect people to go to Congress. They are electing a particular Congress, which lasts two years. So through 2013 and 2014, the 113th U.S. Congress has been making laws. For 2015 and 2016, the 114th U.S. Congress will be in office. Each Congress consists of two “annual sessions”, which today run roughly the length of the calendar year. The adjournment sine die typically concludes each annual session.

Today, the length of the recess following sine die adjournment is not much different from a recess following an adjournment to a day certain (which is when the Congress sets a particular date to return). In years past, Congress met for only a few months out of the year, and a recess following upon a sine die adjournment could last for months. In current practice, Congress often meets in Washington through much of December, and even as late as Christmas Eve in rare circumstances. Thus, the recess could be only a week or two, which is a much shorter period than its traditional August recess.

The sine die adjournment has several implications for the legislative process. When one Congress expires, all the pending legislation goes with it. So if it occurs at the end of a Congress, a sine die adjournment effectively permanently ends consideration of any bills that had not been passed yet. Theoretically, the Congress could be called into session again before their terms expire, and leftover bills could be considered; however, such extraordinary sessions are exceedingly rare—there was one in 1939—and Congress would likely only deal with legislation affecting the circumstances that mandated their return. If a sine die adjournment occurs and a Member of Congress has not had his or her bill passed, he would have to reintroduce it in the next Congress.

An adjournment sine die may also affect legislation when bills are considered under what are known as expedited procedures. Occasionally a bill is considered under provisions that allow Congress to dispose of it speedily, and these provisions often contain timetables for action. However, a sine die recess (or another kind of recess, for that matter) could interrupt this timetable. For example, a law or congressional rule could say that the House must vote on X bill within seven days. However, if that bill becomes available two days before a sine die adjournment, there will be five unconsumed days. The final sine die adjournment of a Congress would make this especially problematic, since the next session would be that of a different Congress, meaning the original bill would not be available for their consideration. When confronted with a situation where a sine die adjournment would interrupt a timetable for considering a bill, there are a number of ways Congress could remedy the problem. For example, it could say that a sine die adjournment terminates the timetable. Or a law that establishes expedited procedures could allow for the next, new Congress to begin the time period in question again.

A sine die adjournment also affects the legislative process because it marks the beginning of a recess, which means the President can use his constitutional authority to fill executive and legislative branch vacancies while the Congress has left Washington. This might not seem remarkable, but the sine die adjournment figured prominently in a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 2014. In January 2012, President Barack Obama made a number of “recess” appointments when the Senate was technically still meeting, in what are known as “pro forma” sessions, where a Presiding Officer briefly calls the body to order and then dismisses it forthwith, usually without having transacted any business. The Court unanimously ruled against the President, since it held the pro forma sessions were actual meetings of the Senate. Beneath this seeming unanimity, there was a disagreement among the justices. The majority held that the President could make appointments during any actual recess. In contrast, however, a group of concurring justices argued that he could only make appointments during a particular recess, strictly defined—i.e., the break that falls between two sessions of Congress, which follows upon the sine die adjournment. Had the concurring justices secured one more vote for their position, the sine die adjournment would have been more consequential in American politics, since it would be the only time the President could use his recess appointments power.

And to the disappointment of Latinists everywhere, CRS tells us that, in Congress, it’s pronounced “sign a dye”. If you tried that with any ancient Roman, they’d just give you a funny look.

Work consulted:

Richard S. Beth and Jessica Tollestrup. Sessions, Adjournments, and Recesses of Congress. Congressional Research Service. 27 February 2013.