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Congress in Joint Session, September 2009

Joint sessions of the United States Congress are the gatherings together of both houses of the United States Congress (the House of Representatives and Senate). Joint sessions are held on special occasions such as the State of the Union Address and presidential inaugurations.


Forms of joint session and joint meeting

While any meeting of both House and Senate of the U.S. Congress is commonly called a joint session, there is a distinction between the terms joint session and joint meeting:

  • Joint session of congress requires a concurrent resolution from both House and Senate to meet. Joint sessions include the counting of electoral votes following a presidential election and the State of the Union, as well as other addresses by the President.
  • Joint meetings occur with unanimous consent to recess and meet. These are usually convened to hear addresses from U.S. officials other than the President, or for foreign dignitaries.

Meetings of Congress for presidential inaugurations are a special case called formal joint gatherings, but may also be joint sessions if both houses are in session at the time.

Joint sessions and joint meetings are traditionally presided over by the Speaker of the House and take place at the House chamber. However, the Constitution requires the Vice President (as President of the Senate) to preside over the counting of electoral votes.

State of the Union

At some time during the first two months of each session, the President customarily delivers the State of the Union Address, a speech in which an assessment is made of the state of the country, and the presidents' legislative agenda is outlined. The speech is modeled on the Speech from the Throne, given by the British monarch. There is a major difference, however. The President is the principal author of his State of the Union message, while the Speech from the Throne is customarily written by the Prime Minister.

The Constitution of the United States requires that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union," but does not specify whether the information should be given in a speech or a written report.

The first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, delivered the speech in person before both houses of Congress, but that practice was discontinued under Thomas Jefferson, who deemed it too monarchical and sent written reports instead. Written reports were standard until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson reestablished the practice of personally attending to deliver the speech. Few Presidents have deviated from this custom since.[1]

Subjects of joint sessions and meetings

In addition to State of the Union Addresses, inaugurals and counting of electoral votes, Joint Sessions usually fall into one of several topics.


Foreign dignitaries

Winston Churchill addresses Congress in 1943

Foreign heads of state and heads of government from 48 countries have addressed joint meetings of Congress more than a hundred times. Heads of state or government from the United Kingdom have addressed joint meetings the most often (eight times); Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed Congress three of those eight times. Joint meetings have been addressed four times by Irish heads of government–by Taoisigh (Prime Ministers) Liam Cosgrave, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern—and twice by Irish heads of state, Presidents Éamon de Valera and Seán T. O'Kelly.[2]

Twice have joint meetings been attended by dignitaries from two countries: On September 18, 1978, when Congress was addressed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and on July 26, 1994, when Congress was addressed by King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The most recent address was given by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on November 3, 2009.[3]

A tradition started by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the foreign heads of state are officially presented to Congress by the Speaker in the same manner as the President during a State of the Union Address.

Presidential addresses

President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress.

In addition to State of the Union Addresses, Presidents deliver addresses to Congress on specific subjects. The first such speech was delivered by John Adams on the subject of U.S. relations with France. The most popular subjects for such addresses are economic, military and foreign policy issues.

Some of these addresses, such as Bill Clinton's 1993 Economic Address, George W. Bush's Budget Message of 2001, and Barack Obama's joint session speech of 2009 are sometimes wrongly labeled as State of Union Addresses. [4][5]

Military leaders

Joint sessions are sometimes called to hear addresses by generals, admirals, or other military leaders. Perhaps the most notable example is Douglas MacArthur's farewell address to Congress.


Six times in the first years of the Space Age, Congress jointly met to be addressed by astronauts after their trips in space.


Nine times, Congress has jointly met to hold a memorial service for a deceased President or former President. Congress has also met to memorialize Vice President James Sherman and the Marquis de Lafayette.


Congress sometimes meets to mark the anniversary of a historical event or of a presidential birthday. The first such occasion was the centennial of George Washington's first inauguration in 1789. Congress has met to mark the centennial of the birth of each President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The most recent Presidential centennial was Lyndon Johnson's on August 27, 2008.

Historic joint sessions

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ RTÉ One television, Six One News, 19 February 2008
  3. ^ German Chancellor Merkel addresses Congress -
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ [2]


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