He Shall from Time to Time
As we enter the second month of America’s longest-ever government shutdown – and just when you thought the volleys across Pennsylvania Avenue couldn’t get more exhausting – last week saw the political gamesmanship reach even more sophomoric troughs: news of a stalled presidential address and a cancelled congressional trip to war-torn Afghanistan.
On Jan. 16, 26 days into the shutdown, newly installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to President Donald Trump requesting that he delay his State of the Union address, which was scheduled for next Tuesday, Jan. 29, or, alternatively, to deliver it to lawmakers in writing. Speaker Pelosi cited security concerns as the rationale for her call to delay or put off the speech, noting that the Secret Service has furloughed some of its employees amidst the shutdown, and those that have been deemed “essential” are working without pay. (The White House rejected this reasoning.)
The commander in chief responded with his own missive, telling Speaker Pelosi that the U.S. Department of Defense would no longer be able to fly the Speaker and other members of Congress to Brussels, Egypt, and Afghanistan, a mere hour before the delegation was set to depart Washington. If that act wasn’t enough, President Trump called the trip a “public relations event” and canceled any official trips by members of Congress abroad for the duration of the shutdown. (First Lady Melania Trump flew to Florida via military aircraft only hours after the president’s letter was delivered to the speaker’s office.)
The speaker opted not to take commercial aircraft to Afghanistan, citing security concerns and on Sunday, President Trump said he was still considering the request to delay the State of the Union. Yesterday Speaker Pelosi formally removed the option to give the address before Congress next week, and late last night the president agreed to delay the State of the Union until after the shutdown ends. Deep breaths all around: immediate crisis averted.
All of this begs the question: political posturing aside, just how big of a deal is it, really, to postpone the State of the Union?
Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution says 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.” But it doesn’t say when that message is to be delivered, where the remarks are to be given, or whether they need to be spoken at all.
In fact, the State of the Union actually was typically delivered in writing – not in person, and certainly not with all the pomp to which we’ve become accustomed – until the last century. Though the United States will celebrate its 243rd birthday this July, there only have been 95 State of the Union addresses delivered in person to Congress. (Additionally: until 1946, the State of the Union – often referred to by political geeks as the SOTU – wasn’t even called that. It was referred to simply as the Annual Message.)
Before 1913, the U.S. Capitol only saw four SOTU addresses. President George Washington delivered all eight of his annual addresses in person – though, because the federal government hadn’t yet moved to Washington, his addresses were delivered in Philadelphia – as did the nation’s second president, John Adams, during his four years in office. Adams’ successor and political rival Thomas Jefferson discontinued that practice when he took office in 1801. Officially, Jefferson cited worries that presiding over Congress would make him look like a king a mere two decades after America declared its independence from the British monarchy. Unofficially? Slogging the 1.8 miles between the White House and the U.S. Capitol by horse was slower than taking a taxi today at the height of rush hour. Traversing the city in the middle of rain or snow also could have put the commander in chief’s health at risk.
President Jefferson sent all of his annual messages to Congress in writing. The practice stuck: so did each of the next 25 American presidents.
For the next several generations of American politics, it was unheard of for the commander in chief to address Congress in person at all, and it was until just before the outbreak of World War I that a president again went to the Capitol to speak to Congress. (The topic of that speech wasn’t the State of the Union. It was tariffs – another issue Americans watching Washington today are well acquainted with.) Expressing just how shocking it was to have the president address a joint session of Congress, a Washington Post article in 1913 reported, “Disbelief was expressed in congressional circles when the report that the President would read his message in person to the Congress ...” That Post article promised remarks before the U.S. House and Senate would “not become a habit.” (This might perhaps be one of the earliest instances of fake news infiltrating the Washington press corps’ coverage of a presidential administration.)
But President Wilson went back to Congress eight months later to fulfill his “constitutional duty to ‘give to the Congress information of the state of the union.’” The kernel of a tradition took hold.
Wilson gave five more State of the Union addresses in person – until a stroke prevented him from doing so late in his tenure. Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, gave two in-person State of the Union addresses, but his successor Calvin Coolidge gave just one (the first presidential address carried on radio and broadcast live to the country, incidentally) and the 31st president, Herbert Hoover, addressed a joint session of Congress only once, to mark the bicentennial of George Washington’s birthday.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the father of the fireside chat, took up Wilson’s model, delivering remarks in the Capitol every year from 1934 to 1943. FDR gave his 1944 address from the White House because he was sick with the flu.
Today, the State of the Union is not delivered in person the year after an election year (when the president gives an inaugural address) and that was true in 1945. Presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, often give remarks to a joint session of Congress shortly after their inauguration, however.
President Harry Truman did not give his 1946 address in person (he delivered it in writing) and President Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t go to the Capitol in 1956 (he gave the address via radio), but then the tradition continued uninterrupted until 1973 when President Richard Nixon thought the speech was becoming too much like a laundry list and skipped traveling down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Today the speech is, indeed, a laundry list of priorities, but back in 1913 President Wilson started out with something loftier. Wilson ended his first SOTU with compliments for his colleagues in Congress. He said, “Surely it is a proper and pertinent part of my report on ‘the state of the Union’ to express my admiration for the diligence, the good temper, and the full comprehension of public duty which has already been manifested by both the houses [of Congress].”
High praise – and nothing like what we’ll hear in this year’s State of the Union, when – or if – it’s delivered.