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Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Schedule Debate

James Madison rules America: the separation of powers limits what a president can do. That's the lesson from yesterday's scuffle over the scheduling of the president's speech to Congress. Chad Pergram writes:

"I respectfully request the opportunity to address a Joint Session of Congress on September 7, 2011, at 8:00 pm," wrote President Obama to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) around noontime Wednesday.

The president's entreaty to speak to Congress in prime-time, State of the Union-style, triggered a strange, "only inside the Beltway" kerfuffle which focused on the rules of etiquette and decorum.

Usually the Speaker of the House invites the president to Congress for remarks. It's the speaker's invitation to extend. There's usually some back and forth as to the date and time. But that usually goes on behind the scenes via email and the phone.

But on Wednesday, the logistical volleying played out in public. And it quickly devolved into catcalls from both sides of the aisle. The intense rhetoric soon drowned the proposed theme of the speech: jobs and fixing the economy.

Moments after the White House released the president's letter to the press, I reminded my FOX colleagues that it's up to Boehner to actually invite Mr. Obama. He just can't show up. It's not his domain. A few co-workers wondered if this would just be a formality.

Probably, I responded, joking that if Boehner didn't accede to President Obama's request, we'd then have a story.

And sure enough, we did.

First of all, the president's proposed date sideswiped a nationally-televised GOP presidential candidates debate at the Reagan Library. Would the debate go on? Was the president trying to quash the Republican message?


The Speaker of the House fired a shot across the president's bow a little past 4 pm.

"The House of Representatives and Senate are each required to adopt a Concurrent Resolution to allow for a Joint Session of Congress to receive the President. And as the Majority Leader announced more than a month ago, the House will not be in session until Wednesday, September 7, with votes at 6:30 that evening," wrote Boehner to Mr. Obama. "With the significant amount of time - typically more than three hours - that is required to allow for a security sweep of the House Chamber before receiving a President, it is my recommendation that your address be held on the following evening, when we can ensure there will be no parliamentary or logistical impediments that might detract from your remarks."


The sides continued to trade barbs. But it became quickly evident who would win this struggle.

President Obama may be the most powerful man in the world. But even the power of the presidency has curbs in the halls of Congress.

This phenomenon is distilled into two basic elements of American government.

First, the Speaker of the House is the Constitutional Officer of the legislative branch. Secondly, the will of a sole senator can gum up the United States Senate.

Boehner controls the House. Nearly all Joint Sessions of Congress occur in the House chamber. And during such convocations, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate (who, according to the Constitution, is also the Vice President) preside.

One need to look no further than any garden-variety State of the Union speech to observe how this works.

Watch where the president speaks during a Joint Session of Congress. He delivers his address from the second level of the House dais, one level immediately below the Speaker's rostrum. Of course, that's where the Speaker of the House and Vice President sit. They are in charge (specifically the House Speaker), peering over the shoulder of their invited guest (the president).

In addition, it's the responsibility of the Speaker of the House to formally present the honored guest to all lawmakers after the president is in place on the dais.

So, Mr. Obama would be the star attraction. But it's John Boehner's show.

Then, there are the Senate rules.

As Boehner indicated, both chambers must approve a Joint Session of Congress. Had Boehner deferred to the president and propounded a resolution providing for Congress to conduct the Joint Session on September 7, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) threatened to singlehandedly derail the entire process.

"The President should pick another night," said DeMint in a statement. "If he insists on playing politics by picking the night of the GOP debate, I will object to the session."

In the modern Senate, few agonize about an actual filibuster, ala Jimmy Stewart commanding the floor for hours in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Instead, the most grave manifestation is the THREAT of a filibuster.

And that is precisely what Jim DeMint promised to do.


This is one of the reasons why the White House relented on Wednesday night.

"We appreciate the president working with us tonight and look forward to hearing his new proposals," said Boehner aide Brendan Buck after the president agreed to speak on September 8.

It's reminiscent of a well-known dictum at the gaming tables in Las Vegas: "The house always wins."

And when it comes to conduct a Joint Session of Congress, that maxim applies in Washington, too.