What you need to know: Joint Meetings, Joint Sessions, & Inaugurations

US CAPOn Tuesday night, President Donald Trump delivered an address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, the biggest speech he’s given since his inaugural address back on Jan. 20. But don’t call it a State of the Union address.

In almost every way, the speech Mr. Trump gave is identical to the State of the Union, the annual, wide-ranging speech a sitting president delivers before Congress early in the year. That speech is used to reflect on the progress of the previous year and help set the president’s agenda for the coming year.

Mr. Trump is expected to do much of that in his speech to Congress: he’ll outline his policy priorities and help frame the first year of his presidency, doing so before members of the Cabinet and the full Congress. But a president’s address during his or her first year in office is never referred to as a State of the Union address — because after just a few weeks into his term, a new president isn’t expected to know the full state of the union. Instead, the speech is more about looking toward future plans than recapping the progress of the last year. Still, it’s been tradition in recent administrations for the new president to deliver a speech to a joint session to Congress in the early weeks or months of his term. For example, former President Obama delivered his address to a joint session of Congress on February 24, 2009 — approximately one month into his first term.

The two houses of Congress generally work separately, but on occasion the House of Representatives and the Senate gather together. Moments of great significance have taken place when the two houses hold such meetings. This chart lists those occasions where Congress meets as a single body since the First Congress (1789–1791).

Joint Meetings or Joint Sessions? The parliamentary difference between a Joint Meeting and a Joint Session has evolved over time. At present, the distinctions have these features:

A Joint Meeting takes place when the House and Senate agree to recess and meet with the other chamber. The purpose of a joint meeting has usually been for Congress to hear an address from an important figure—generally a visiting foreign leader. This practice became a standard part of foreign leaders’ state visits to the United States after 1945.

A Joint Session takes place when the House and Senate adopt a concurrent resolution. Joint Sessions typically are reserved to hear an address from the President of the United States or to count presidential electoral votes as specified by the U.S. Constitution (Article I, section 1; 12th Amendment). On January 6, 1941, two Joint Sessions were held the same day: to count the presidential electoral votes and to hear President Franklin Roosevelt deliver his Annual Message to Congress.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives usually presides over Joint Sessions and Joint Meetings; however, the President of the Senate presides over Joint Sessions where the electoral votes are counted, as required by the Constitution (Article I, section 1; 12th Amendment).

The Annual Message and the State of the Union Address. – The Constitution states that the President will “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient” (Article II, section 3). For the first decade of the national government Presidents appeared in person before a Joint Session of Congress to deliver their annual messages. Beginning with Thomas Jefferson in 1801, Presidents sent the Annual Message in writing to be read by House clerks and Senate secretaries respectively. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson resurrected delivering the Annual Message in person to a Joint Session of Congress. Beginning with the 80th Congress (1949–1951) the appearance of the President to deliver the Annual Message has been termed the “State of the Union Address.”

Electoral Count and Presidential Inaugurations. The House and Senate also come together in ways important to the President.

The Constitution specifies that all presidential electoral votes are counted “in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives” with the President of the Senate presiding (Article II, section 1; 12th Amendment). The electoral count has taken place without problems save for the disputed electoral votes challenged in 1877 when a special Electoral Commission made up of Representatives, Senators, and Supreme Court Justices reviewed the disputed ballots.

Congress has hosted inaugurations since the first occasion in 1789. Inaugurations have always have been formal joint gatherings, and sometimes they also were joint sessions. Inaugurations were Joint Sessions when both houses of Congress were in session, and they processed to the ceremony as part of the business of the day. In many cases, however, one or both houses were not in session or were in recess at the time of the ceremony. In this table, inaugurations that were not Joint Sessions are listed in the second column. Those that were Joint Sessions are so identified and described in the third column.

Fast Facts

  • When Congress met in New York City from 1789–1790, joint gatherings were held in the Senate Chamber in Federal Hall.
  • While Congress met in Philadelphia from 1790–1799, it met in Congress Hall. Joint gatherings were initially held in the Senate Chamber from 1790 to 1793.
  • Beginning in 1794, the Hall of the House of Representatives in Philadelphia’s Congress Hall hosted joint gatherings of Congress.
  • After the Capitol moved to Washington in 1800, the Senate Chamber was used for joint gatherings through 1805.
  • Since 1809, with few exceptions, Joint Sessions and Joint Meetings have occurred in the Hall of the House.
  • From France’s Marquis de Lafayette’s address in 1824 through Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo in 1977, the House of Representatives often invited foreign dignitaries to address the chamber in what was known as a House Reception. In the modern era, the practice of using one-chamber receptions largely disappeared.

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