Joint session of the United States Congress

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Joint session of the United States Congress
Seal of the United States Congress.svg
FoundedMarch 4, 1789
(231 years ago)
Seats535 voting members
  • 100 senators
  • 435 representatives
6 non-voting members
117th United States Senate.svg
Senate political groups
  •   Republican (50)
  •   Democratic (48)
  •   Independent (2) [lower-alpha 1]
  •   Vacant (0)
(117th) US House of Representatives.svg
House of Representatives political groups
Meeting place
United States House of Representatives chamber.jpg
House of Representatives Chamber
United States Capitol
Washington, D.C.
United States of America
United States Constitution

A joint session of the United States Congress is a gathering of members of the two chambers of the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Joint sessions can be held on any special occasion, but are required to be held when the president delivers a State of the Union address, when they gather to count and certify the votes of the Electoral College as the presidential election, or when they convene on the occasion of a presidential inauguration. A joint meeting is a ceremonial or formal occasion and does not perform any legislative function, and no resolution is proposed nor vote taken.


Joint sessions and meetings are usually held in the Chamber of the House of Representatives, and are traditionally presided over by the speaker of the House. However, the Constitution requires the vice president (as president of the Senate) to preside over the counting of electoral votes.

Counting electoral votes

The Twelfth Amendment since 1804 has provided that the vice president, as President of the Senate, receives the Electoral College votes, and then, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, opens the sealed votes. The Electoral Count Act of 1887 requires the votes to be counted during a joint session on January 6 following the meetings of the presidential electors. [1] The act also specifies that the president of the Senate presides over the session. [2] The Twentieth Amendment now provides that the newly elected Congress counts the votes. Until 1936, the outgoing Congress counted the electoral votes.

The joint session to count electoral votes is held at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time on January 6 in the Chamber of the House of Representatives. [2] The sitting vice president is expected to preside, but in several cases the president pro tempore of the Senate has chaired the proceedings instead. The vice president and the speaker of the House sit at the podium, with the vice president in the seat of the speaker of the House. Senate pages bring in the two mahogany boxes containing each state's certified vote and place them on tables in front of the senators and representatives. Each chamber appoints two tellers to count the vote (normally one member of each political party). Relevant portions of the Certificate of Vote are read for each state, in alphabetical order. Members of Congress can object to any state's vote count, provided that the objection is supported by at least one member of each house of Congress. A successful objection will be followed by separate debate and votes on the objection in each chamber of Congress. The successful vote by both chambers is required to toss out that state's vote count.

Objections to the electoral vote count are rarely raised, and only four have successfully occurred since the current procedure was implemented by the Electoral Count Act, two initiated by Democrats and two initiated by Republicans. [3] The first was in 1969 regarding the vote of faithless elector Lloyd W. Bailey of North Carolina, who was pledged to vote for Richard Nixon but instead voted for George Wallace. The objection by Maine Senator Edmund Muskie and Michigan Representative James G. O'Hara was subsequently defeated. The second was in 2005, when Ohio Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones joined with California Senator Barbara Boxer to object to the entire slate of electors from Ohio following controversies regarding voting in the state during the 2004 United States presidential election. The objection was defeated by wide margins in the House and Senate. [4] The third and fourth occurred in 2021. Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona's 4th congressional district and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas successfully raised an objection to the certification of electoral votes from the election in Arizona, for the third. Representative Scott Perry (PA-10) and Senator Josh Hawley (Missouri) objected to Pennsylvania electoral vote certification, for the fourth. Both objections were defeated by large margins in the House and Senate, although over 125 Republicans voted for each objection. [5]

Notably, Democratic members of the House attempted unsuccessfully to object to the certification of electoral votes from the 2000 presidential election, with outgoing vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore overruling multiple objections to the controversial election count from Florida due to the lack of a senator signing on to any of them. [6] Similarly, in 2017, Democratic representatives attempted unsuccessfully to object to the electoral votes from multiple states after the 2016 presidential election. [7]

If there are no objections or all objections are overruled, the presiding officer declares the result of the vote and states who is elected president and vice president. The senators then depart from the House Chamber.

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 president's legislative agenda is outlined. The speech is modeled on the Speech from the Throne, given by the British monarch. There is a major difference, in that the president is the principal author of his own State of the Union address, 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 by Thomas Jefferson, who considered 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. Since then, on a number of occasions presidents have presented a written report, usually for medical reasons. [8]

Subjects of joint sessions and meetings

In addition to State of the Union addresses, inaugurals and counting of electoral votes, joint sessions or meetings usually fall into one of several topics.

Foreign dignitaries

Winston Churchill addresses Congress in 1943. Sitting behind him Vice President Wallace and Speaker Rayburn. Winston Churchill Address the US Congress.PNG
Winston Churchill addresses Congress in 1943. Sitting behind him Vice President Wallace and Speaker Rayburn.
Indonesian President Sukarno addresses Congress in 1956. Sitting behind him Vice President Nixon and Speaker Rayburn. Sukarno speaking to US Congress, Presiden Soekarno di Amerika Serikat, p10.jpg
Indonesian President Sukarno addresses Congress in 1956. Sitting behind him Vice President Nixon and Speaker Rayburn.
Pope Francis addresses Congress in 2015. Behind him are Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner. Pope Francis Visits the United States Capitol (22153720701).jpg
Pope Francis addresses Congress in 2015. Behind him are Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner.

Joint meetings have been held more than a hundred times to enable foreign heads of state or heads of government to address Congress. Leaders of 48 countries have addressed Congress at a joint meeting: France leads the list with nine joint meeting addresses by heads of state or dignitaries. Other leading countries are: Israel (8), United Kingdom (8), Mexico (7), India (6), Italy (6), Ireland (6), South Korea (6), Germany, including West Germany and unified Germany (5), Australia (4), Canada (3), Argentina (3), and the Philippines (3). Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill have each made three joint addresses to Congress, more than any other foreign dignitaries (Netanyahu: 1996, [9] 2011, [10] 2015; [11] Churchill: 1941, 1943, 1952). Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin addressed joint meetings of Congress on two occasions (1976 and 1994) as did Nelson Mandela of South Africa (1990 and 1994). [12]

The first foreign dignitary to address a joint session of Congress was Ambassador André de La Boulaye of France who addressed a joint session on May 20, 1934, to memorialize the centennial anniversary of the death of Marquis de Lafayette. [13] The first non-dignitary to address a joint meeting of Congress was Polish Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa in 1989. Nelson Mandela, then deputy president of the African National Congress addressed a joint meeting in 1990. [14]

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.

John Howard, prime minister of Australia, had originally been scheduled to address Congress on September 12, 2001, but his address was postponed due to the September 11 terrorist attacks the previous day. Howard's address was rescheduled for June 12, 2002, where he spoke about the attacks he had witnessed 9 months earlier. Howard was acknowledged with a standing ovation and describes the occasion as a "moving moment." [15]

The most recent addresses by foreign dignitaries were given by French President Emmanuel Macron on April 25, 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 8, 2016, and Pope Francis on September 24, 2015. The Pope did not address the joint session as a religious dignitary but as a head of state. [16]

All foreign heads of state and heads of government are presented officially to Congress in the same manner as the president during the State of the Union Address and are introduced by the speaker by their diplomatic style of address, followed by their name and respective office.

Presidential addresses

In addition to a State of the Union address, presidents address 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.

In addition to bringing back the tradition of delivering a State of the Union address, Woodrow Wilson was the first president since John Adams to address Congress on specific topics. He delivered 17 such speeches, more than any other president.

Military leaders

Closing words of MacArthur's final address to a joint meeting of Congress

Joint meetings 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. In concluding the speech he recalled an old army song which contained the line "old soldiers never die; they just fade away". He then said, "And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good-bye".


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, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson.[ citation needed ]

Historic joint sessions and joint meetings

Joint meetings

On December 18, 1874, Kalākaua was the first person in history received by the United States Congress in a joint meeting, in this case occurring in the President's Room of the United States Senate. This differs from a joint session of Congress, for which the United States Constitution requires a joint resolution, and is often used for formal addresses. Joint meetings of Congress are rare, and another one was not called until the 1900 Centennial of the Capital City. [21]

See also


  1. The independent senators (Angus King and Bernie Sanders) formally caucus with the Democratic Party.

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  1. "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." Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11-27, National Archives and Records Administration
  2. 1 2 3 U.S.C.   § 15, Counting electoral votes in Congress
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