“Precedents” and Presidential Addresses

As you may have heard, the President has requested an opportunity to address a joint session of Congress. His request initially was to make the address on September 7, but the Speaker responded that because of certain logistical concerns “it is my recommendation that your address be held on the following evening.”

In reference to this exchange, Luke Russert tweeted that the “House historian says public move by Boehner to tell Obama to change date is unprecedented.” To the extent that this implies that Presidents have traditionally determined the dates of their addresses to joint sessions of Congress without consultation or negotiation with the leadership, it is misleading both as to precedent and as to the advice of the House Historian.

A joint session to hear the President is convened by a concurrent resolution. See Deschler’s Precedents, ch. 1, § 3.4; see also House History: Joint Meetings, Joint Sessions and Inaugurations. As a formal matter, therefore, permission of both Houses is required; Deschler indicates that in the House the Speaker and leadership informally exercise control over the date and time of joint sessions or meetings. There is no indication that the President has the authority to set the date and time unilaterally.

Thus, it stands to reason that when the President wants to address a joint session, the White House contacts the congressional leadership and a date and time is worked out in private discussions. This seems to be the protocol that the White House was attempting to follow when it contacted the Speaker’s office. The absence of any “precedent” on this issue does not mean that there has never been any negotiation or disagreement on a date and time; it merely means that no one went public with the issue before an agreement was reached. That is all the House Historian was trying to convey.


Update: Russert’s tweet was linked to by this Jim Downie blog post (which in turn was cited by Jonathan Capehart in the Washington Post). Downie and Capehart, however, did not link to the original tweet, but to someone else’s selective quotation of that tweet. If one goes to the original tweet, it reads as follows: “House historian says public move by Boehner to tell #Obama to change date is unprecedented. Negotiations usually happen behind closed doors.”

In fairness to Russert, the second sentence makes his statement less misleading. The statement that “negotiations usually happen behind closed doors” is an accurate paraphrase of what the House Historian said. Of course, it also makes the first sentence entirely meaningless, at least for the purposes of apportioning blame between the President and the Speaker.

Needless to say, whoever knowingly omitted that second sentence must have intended to mislead.


Update 2: This Hot Air post indicates that there is some “precedent” for a Speaker refusing a presidential request to address Congress, though in that case it was President Reagan’s request to address the House, rather than a joint session. Something that the House Historian might want to note, although not inconsistent with the observation that negotiations usually take place behind closed doors.