Postpone it, or deliver it in writing. That was the message House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent to President Donald Trump. At issue is the State of the Union address.
In a letter Wednesday, the speaker cited security concerns during the shutdown, and said that if the government wasn’t reopened by the scheduled date for the address, Jan. 29, an alternative to the nationally televised speech should be found.
Jeremi Suri is Mack Brown distinguished chair for leadership in global affairs at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. He says presidents haven’t always given a State of the Union speech in front of Congress, though it’s become a modern custom. Article II of the Constitution requires the president to report to Congress, and until the early 20th century, those reports had always been in writing.
“Franklin Roosevelt was the first to call it a ‘State of the Union,’ actually,” Suri says.
But the first spoken report to Congress came earlier. Woodrow Wilson was the first to deliver a State of the Union-style address before Congress. That happened in 1913 – Wilson’s first year in office.
“What Wilson was trying to do was assert more dominance over the legislative agenda,” Suri says. “Wilson’s belief was that the president should be more like a prime minister.”
Early presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, resisted the notion of delivering a speech before Congress. Jefferson felt the practice would make him seem like a monarch, not an elected president.
“He did not think presidents should throw their rhetorical weight around,” Suri says.
In 1944, Roosevelt did not deliver a State of the Union address to Congress because he was in poor health. He delivered the address in writing. Ronald Reagan postponed his 1986 address, which would have fallen immediately after the Challenger space shuttle explosion that killed seven astronauts.
Suri says that the phenomenon of a January State of the Union speech in front of a joint session of Congress is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the 1930s, presidents were inaugurated in March. In Abraham Lincoln’s time, the report to Congress was delivered in December.
Suri says Congress has no constitutional obligation to invite the president to speak before it, and can invite or disinvite anyone it chooses. Some believe that Pelosi’s letter is an attempt to make things difficult for Trump, as the government shutdown continues without an agreement to end it.
Suri says former House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress, in spite of objections from then-President Barack Obama.
“What this really is is Congress reasserting its authority,” Suri says. “Since World War II, when Franklin Roosevelt made the State of the Union the big spectacle that it’s become, presidents have used this to bully Congress, to push Congress.”
Suri says that in the past 35 years, the address has become far more openly partisan, with congressional leaders seated behind the president, clapping – or refusing to do so – based on what he’s said.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.