On September 24, 2015, Pope Francis delivered a speech before a joint meeting of Congress. I thought it would be interesting to provide some information about joint sessions and meetings of Congress–what they are, how they occur and where one can find historical information about joint sessions.
The Senate website defines a joint session as an occasion when the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate adopt a concurrent resolution to conduct formal business, such as counting electoral votes or listening to a presidential address. A joint meeting, on the other hand, is a ceremonial event when the House and Senate each adopt a unanimous consent agreement and meet together to hear a U.S. or foreign dignitary speak (e.g., General Douglas MacArthur or Prime Minister John Aloysius Costello of Ireland). For a recent example, on September 24 for the pope, Speaker Boehner called the joint meeting to order. By contrast, on January 20, 2015, the House and Senate passed H.Con.Res. 7 which provided that the Senate and House should assemble in the Hall of the House of Representatives for a joint session while President Obama delivered the annual State of the Union address.
Generally, the Speaker of the House presides over joint sessions; although, the President of the Senate presides when electoral votes are counted as provided in Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution: “The Electors shall meet in their respective States … And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted.”
The first joint session of Congress occurred on April 6, 1789 when Congress convened to count the electoral votes for the presidency. The next joint session was on January 8, 1790 when President Washington gave the annual message, as required by the Constitution, to Congress. Between 1789 and 1824, sessions were called for counting electoral votes and hearing the president’s annual message. The first foreign dignitary to address Congress was the Marquis de Lafayette on December 10, 1824. It was almost 30 years before another foreign visitor addressed Congress in 1852; and, throughout the 19th century, there were few addresses to Congress by either presidents or foreign visitors. Indeed the presidents did not address Congress in person with their annual messages; rather, these were transmitted to Congress and then read aloud–usually by the Clerk of the House. This began to change in the early 20th century. President Wilson delivered 25 addresses to Congress during his tenure. The number of foreign visitors speaking before Congress also increased; although, a number of these addresses were delivered before one chamber or the other–not joint meetings. Winston Churchill holds the record, as a foreign dignitary, of addressing the Congress in a joint meeting on three separate occasions: December 26, 1941; January 19, 1943; and January 17, 1952.
The best source of information about joint sessions and meetings is another one of my favorite government publications: the Official Congressional Directory. This volume is published during the first session of a new Congress; and, since 1997, an interim edition is provided online. The Directory is compiled by the Government Publishing Office under the auspices of the Joint Committee on Printing. According to the note in the foreword, the first official Congressional Directory was published in 1847. The Directory provides information about current members of Congress, Congressional committees, support agencies, and contact information for the President, cabinet officers and departments. This work also contains additional useful statistical and historical information, including votes cast for each Senator and Representative in the previous three elections, the dates of each session of Congress, and information on joint sessions and meetings of Congress.