What is a Joint Session of Congress?
Trump, FDR, and Washington: All have addressed a joint session of Congress. But what exactly is it?
As President Trump addresses his first Joint Session of Congress only months after stepping into the presidency, the American people are allowed an insiders look into a tradition which began in the 18th century. While Trump's Presidency has been rocked by many controversial, game changing moments, for many, this return to traditional normalcy almost comes as a relief.
However, you may have questions about this "joint session." What is it? How is this normal? How will this help anything? Whether you love or hate President Trump, it is important to have an understanding of how the government works, and, for this reason, it is important for us to take up a chair and discuss what this joint session of Congress is and how it works.
What is a Joint Session?
When people refer to Congress, they actually refer to two very distinct units. The Legislative Branch of Government is divided into two separate Houses: the House of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Every state has two Senators that represent their state in the Senate. Every state holds the same sway over the Senate. On the other hand, the number of Representatives for each state depends on the population of the state. States with larger populations have more Representatives. Therefore, states like California, New York, and Texas hold more influence over the House than, say, South Dakota or Rhode Island.
Often, matters are settled in the Senate before being passed on to the House of Representatives. For example, the Senate voted over the appointment of Jeff Sessions before the House of Representatives could vote. Rarely do the two chambers of Congress meet to discuss matters.
A joint session of Congress, therefore, is when both chambers of the Legislative Branch meet. Since 1809, almost every joint session has been held at the Hall of the House. Decisions important enough to necessitate both houses to meet are discussed during these sessions.
Why Do They Meet?
Most often, a joint session will be held to witness the voting of the Electoral College, the Presidential Inauguration, and the State of the Union Address--a yearly event where the President of the United States gives a speech to the American people about the state of the country that year, where he wishes to go, and other comments of that nature.
Of course, President Trump's address to the joint session of Congress will be none of these things.
Congress also meets when foreign dignitaries wish to address Congress. This has happened over one hundred times in history, with England, France, and Israel doing this a number of eight times in American history. Military leaders also can address joint sessions of Congress, and it is tradition, starting with FDR, that joint sessions will assemble to honor the hundredth birthday of every president (though Lyndon B Johnson is the exception).
But the President of the United States reserves the ability to address a joint session of Congress whenever he deems it necessary. Often, the president will discuss with Congress either the economic state of the country or foreign policy.
Some of the most famous speeches Presidents gave to a joint session of Congress dealt with war.
The History of the Joint Session
The first joint session of Congress met in April 6th, 1789. This day, the First Continental Congress voted the Electoral Ballots for the first President of the United States. While George Washington gave many speeches, the next president to formally address the join session of Congress became John Adams, who also conceived of the State of the Union Address.
The State of the Union became an informal tradition that not every president maintained. It wasn't until Woodrow Wilson that the State of the Union became a regular tradition. Wilson, to this day, addressed Congress more often than any other president, having given seventeen speeches to the joint session of Congress over the course of his presidency.
The first formally recorded joint session of Congress occurred in 1874. King Kalakaua of the Kingdom of Hawaii came to visit America. As a dignitary, he took the time to address a joint session of Congress. However, thanks to a terrible cold that made it hard for him to talk, he needed another representative to read his speech for him.
Among the most famous joint sessions in history occurred following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. FDR's famous "A Day That Shall Live in Infamy" speech motivated Congress to officially join World War II. To this day, it was the last official declaration of war from Congress. Every other "war" America took part in since then have been military action.
Another famous joint session address took place following "Bloody Sunday," the historic walk on Selma led by Martin Luther King Jr. Lyndon B Johnson implored the joint session of Congress to write and pass the Voting Rights Act.
President George W Bush addressed a joint session of Congress following the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks. His speech made clear the Bush Administration's direction following the al Qaeda attacks, starting Bush's War on Terror.
In case it is not clear, while there are many occasions where a joint session of Congress will meet, the most historically significant speeches occur following great moments of difficulty for America. They serve as attempts to solve whatever adversities America faces. History remembers the speeches that swayed Congress to the President's stance, and history forgets those that did nothing.
Is this Just an American Thing?
Joint sessions occur in any branch of government with two or more separate houses. Like in America, they meet to meet foreign dignitaries and receive addresses from their leaders.
In Australia, joint sessions are held to settle deadlock votes between the two houses of federal parliament. They too possess a Senate and House of Representatives. Because the House of Representatives possess more members than the Senate, this often gives the House more power in voting.
Canada does not possess a true joint session as it exists in America and Australia. Rather, the House of Commons will sit in to watch the Senate.
The United Kingdom, however, has the most storied history of joint sessions in modern society. Since the 16th Century, the House of Commons and the House of Lords have sat to witness speeches and statements issued by the monarchs of English and British government. These speeches are often given in the House of Lords, as the monarch is forbidden by law to set foot in the House of Commons. However, only after 1939 could foreign dignitaries meet a joint session of British Parliament.
It is very likely that Britain's joint sessions influenced the development of joint sessions in America, due to the American colonies' collective familiarity with British law.
A President's First Joint Session
A president's first joint session of Congress is a big ordeal. It is the new president's chance to discuss congressional law with the Legislative Branch--a means through which the president can push policies important to his new administration.
In order to gain an understanding of what President Trump may say in his first Joint Session Speech, it is important to look at what our prior two presidents said during their speeches.
President George W Bush's first joint session of Congress occurred on February 27th, 2001--a little over a month following his Inauguration. President Bush, alongside Vice-President Dick Cheney, spoke primarily about the National Budget. He did not give another joint session speech until September 20th--his famous speech given following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
President Barack Obama addressed Congress to discuss the recession left following the Bush Administration. He stated that the country would be rebuilt, and, as he went on, outlined a few issues his administration saw as priorities necessary for the rebuilding of the nation, as well as outlining the mistakes made by the prior administration that he would be sure to avoid.
In both cases, the speeches dealt with internal policies, and the issues facing America's infrastructure. It was not until exterior issues plagued America directly that joint sessions were held to address the external threats.
President Trump's First Joint Session Speech
Because most joint session speeches deal with political policy in some fashion, it can be reasonable to expect President Trump to discuss policy in some fashion. This is the President's chance to mend some of the division that has fragmented this country in the months during and after the election.
Unfortunately, the President has never needed to confront a session of Congress so divided. Votes in the Senate and House since Donald Trump's Inauguration have been divided by party lines. President Trump must address not merely a joint session between Senators and Representatives, but between Republicans and Democrats that he has insulted both in speeches, social media, and other means.
President Trump will have a chance to appeal to all of Congress in a speech tailored to them. This speech may be his greatest hope at accomplishing anything during his presidency, as the President needs Congress on his side if he hopes to pass any policies. This joint session speech may salvage the Trump Administration from its rocky start or dash any hope President Trump has at accomplishing anything.
The ball is in his court. Let history decide.