“Congress” Versus “the Congress”

Since it is the weekend, let me offer this rather trivial observation about the constitutional text:  The Constitution appears to take a stylistically erratic approach to the word “Congress,” sometimes introducing it with the definite article “the,” and at other times introducing it without any article at all.  Looking at this GPO edition of the document, I count 22 references to “the Congress” and 3 references to “Congress” in the first seven Articles, along with 12 references to “the Congress” and 12 references to “Congress” in the subsequent amendments.  There is also one reference to “a Congress” in the Vesting Clause of Article I, although that one makes pretty good sense to me in context.

(By the way, I have no doubt that someone has made this observation before, but the topic turns out to be frustratingly difficult to Google, so I’m unable to provide a reference.  If you have addressed the issue previously, though, feel free to let me know, and I’ll be sure to give credit where credit is due.)

Some of these “Congress”/“the Congress” discrepancies might well be justified, but others seem to me pretty obviously inconsistent.  Compare, e.g., Article I, Section 10, Clause 2 (“No state shall, without the Consent of the Congress…”), with its immediately ensuing clause, Article I, Section 10, Clause 3 (“No state shall, without the Consent of Congress…”).  Compare also the Enforcement Clause of the Thirteenth Amendment (“Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation”), with the Enforcement Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment (“The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”) and Fifteenth Amendment (“The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”).  So unless there are some deep and subtle messages that I’m supposed to be picking up on, these (and other) discrepancies look to me like the product of accidental oversight.

All of which prompts from me one question and one observation:  The question, which I pose for those more learned than I, is whether it was ever customary, at least in a colloquial sense, to refer to the Constitution’s legislative branch as “the Congress” rather than just “Congress.”  And if so, when did customs change?  I don’t normally say things like: “I wonder if the Congress will shut down the government,” or “I’m looking forward to those debates in the Congress this week,” and I don’t often hear other people using formulations of this sort.  (But see these examples.)  On the other hand, the original Constitution’s heavy reliance on the term “the Congress” makes me wonder whether practices were different earlier on.  (Also, for whatever it’s worth, both “the Congress” and “Congress” make regular appearances in the Federalist Papers.  But that’s the full extent of my meager primary-source research on this vitally important subject.)

The observation, which I offer mainly to myself, is that it’s really, really tough to put together a written document that is totally lacking in stylistic inconsistencies.  That such inconsistencies appear in the constitutional text itself—a short text, whose provisions have been carefully reviewed and edited by lots of smart people—seems to me a pretty good indicator that small-scale deviations of this sort are virtually impossible to eliminate altogether.  That’s something I’m going to keep in mind the next time I find myself fretting about stylistic inconsistencies in my own work.  (E.g., “Did I accidentally use the un-hyphenated ‘decisionmaking’ in Part I, while later using the hyphenated ‘decision-making’ in Part VI???”)  Not that I shouldn’t try to be consistent, but to the extent that I do end up erring, at least I’m not alone…

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2 Responses

  1. mls says:

    Indeed. On a related point, I asked Seth Tillman the following: “What is an “an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States” and how does it differ from an “Office or public Trust under the United States”? I doubt the Framers were trying to send us on a National Treasure hunt to decode these different expressions, but otherwise I have to think they were less than precise in some of the language chosen.” http://www.pointoforder.com/2013/03/07/six-answers-for-six-puzzles/

  2. KH Youm says:

    The leading logomachist Bryan A. Garner, editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014), notes: “Congress does not require an article, except in references to a specific session.” Bryan A. Garner, “Congress,” GARNER’S DICTIONARY OF LEGAL USAGE 203 (3rd ed. 2011).