Congress’s approval rating continues to hover just above all-time lows, an abysmal 15% in the most recent Gallup poll. Americans are clearly frustrated by the apparent inability of elected representatives in Washington to address critical issues like government overspending. Yet even when Congress does act, it is often acting unconstitutionally—because it lacks a quorum.
The Constitution imposes a straightforward quorum requirement on both houses of the legislative branch. Article I, Section 5 states that “a majority of each [house] shall constitute a quorum to do business; but a smaller number of them may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the attendance of absent members . . .”
The plain meaning is that a majority of the membership must be in attendance to conduct legislative business. When any group smaller than a majority is present, it can do only two things: adjourn and compel the attendance of absent members.
Yet Congress—particularly the Senate—too often proceeds without a quorum. The Senate conducts much of its business by “unanimous consent.” This is a procedural device that allows virtually any action to be taken so long as no senator actively objects.