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A History of the State of the Union Address

A History of the State of the Union Address

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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Homeland Security

President Donald Trump’s second State of the Union address last night came after a record 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government. The shutdown over differences between Trump and Democrats in Congress also led to a postponement of the president’s scheduled State of the Union address from January 29.

Whose fault was that?

In the United States, there is tradition and there is the law. The difference between the two is often misunderstood.

During the government shutdown, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi suggested to President Trump that he postpone his State of the Union address until the federal government reopened or deliver it to Congress in writing.

When Trump rejected her suggestions, Pelosi withdrew her invitation for him to address Congress. Did she have the right to suggest that Trump send a written State of the Union to Congress and later cancel her invitation?

In both cases, the answer is yes.

State of the Union Is a Constitutional Requirement

Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution requires that the president “shall from time to time 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.”

However, there is no constitutional requirement that the president appear in person to fulfill that duty. George Washington and his successor, John Adams, did appear in person. Adams’ successor, Thomas Jefferson, however, chose to obey the Constitution by sending a written message to Congress.

Afterward, no president went before Congress to make a State of the Union address until 1913 – when President Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of appearing in person.

Wilson’s In-Person State of the Union Considered Presumptuous, Nearly Unthinkable

“Wilson tested out the idea [of speaking directly to the American people] barely a month after his 1913 inauguration, when he traveled to Capitol Hill to give a speech on tariffs,” Karen Tumulty wrote in the Washington Post. For nearly half the nation’s history, “the idea of a president personally delivering a speech on Congress’s turf was considered an act so presumptuous as to be nearly unthinkable.”

However, since Calvin Coolidge’s State of the Union address in 1923 was broadcast on radio, all U.S. presidents have taken advantage of the growth of media to speak to Congress and to the American people simultaneously.

Other State of the Union Traditions

Other State of the Union speech traditions have included:

  • Until 1934, the State of the Union was delivered in December, not January.
  • In 1947, President Harry Truman’s State of the Union was the first televised address.
  • President Eisenhower delivered his final State of the Union in writing.
  • President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 speech was the first State of the Union delivered in the evening to ensure a wide TV audience.

House Speaker Has an Advantage over the President for the State of the Union Speech

As to the question of inviting the president to address Congress, the Speaker of the House holds the trump card. Not only does the president need a valid invitation from the Speaker to appear before a joint session of Congress, he also needs “a concurrent resolution for a joint session of Congress to hear the president,” The Washington Post explained.

Both the House and Senate must formally agree to the joint session by adopting the concurrent resolution, Emma Dumain of McClatchy media  explained. “Pelosi, as the speaker, can control whether this resolution comes up for a vote at all in the House — or, if it does, she can urge her members to vote ‘no.’ If there’s no joint session of Congress, Trump can’t come to the House floor to deliver his address.”

Now a second shutdown looms. If the president and Congress cannot reach an agreement by February 15 on immigration and the border wall, infrastructure spending, and other critical issues, we will once again have limited government services. In addition, perhaps almost one million federal employees will again see their pay deferred until the shutdown ends.

That’s not the state the union should be faced with.

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