John Boehner’s Response To Barack Obama On Joint Address Was Not Unprecedented

In the aftermath of  House Speaker John Boehner’s response to President Obama over an address to a Joint Session of Congress, many on the left repeated the statement made by Congressional historians that Boehner’s response was historically unprecedented. As it turns out, that isn’t entirely true, as James Freeman points out in The Wall Street Journal:

The June 24, 1986, edition of The Wall Street Journal featured a story headlined, “President’s Bid to Address the House On Nicaragua Is Rejected by Speaker.” That’s right, no quibbling over the date and time, just a flat-out rejection. In that case, President Ronald Reagan wanted to address the House before its critical vote on funding for the anti-communist “Contra” rebels in Nicaragua. Then-Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neil said that he was willing to host a Reagan speech if it was expanded to include the Senate in a joint session, or he would allow the President to speak to the House alone if the President would also agree to take questions from lawmakers. Otherwise, there would be no Reagan speech in the House chamber. Reagan already had the votes to prevail in the Senate, and Mr. O’Neil wanted to avoid having the spotlight turned on the House, which would make him and his colleagues accountable to the public if Contra aid were rejected.

Both Speaker O’Neil then and Speaker Boehner this week were on very solid Constitutional ground. The president has no more right to take over the proceedings in the House, or to invite himself in, than does the speaker have the right to commandeer the president’s time and attention within the White House. On this point, the meaning of a separate Article I and Article II in the Constitution couldn’t be clearer.

Stop and take that in for a second. O’Neill went a step further than Boehner did and told Reagan that he could not address the House. Rather than whining about the issue the way the Obama White House has, President Reagan is reported to have quipped “They have televisions up there on Capitol Hill, don’t they?” Then he made the speech from the Oval Office, and ended winning the vote in the House.

Reagan was doing the same thing that President Obama tried to do, he was playing a political game by hoping to put pressure on the House in the upcoming vote on aid to the Contras by delivering the speech from the House itself. As Speaker of the House, O’Neill was perfectly within his prerogative to reject Reagan’s request. Just as Boehner was within his prerogative to reject Obama’s selected date and suggest a more convenient alternative. The difference between Reagan and Obama, of course, is that Reagan wanted to address the House on a pending piece of legislation, while Obama wants the setting and pageantry of a Joint Address to deliver what is, in reality, a purely political speech. Whatever the reason, though, Boehner and O’Neill both responded appropriately, and the suggestion that what John Boehner did is somehow an historic rebuke of the President — an assertion made laughable by the fact that the President will, in fact, be addressing a Joint Session of Congress — is simply incorrect.


FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Congress, Politicians, Quick Takes, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Herbie Husker says:

    Let’s not pretend like these two situations are entirely equivalent. O’Neil gave Reagan the choice of addressing a joint session, which is of course what Obama requested. Reagan’s desire to address only the House makes his speech perhaps more political than Obama’s, especially because he refused the opportunity to address a joint session.

    Also, if this really is the only precedent, it’s a pretty weak one to rely on.

  2. Jay Tea says:

    Obviously, Tip O’Neill was a racist.


  3. JKB says:

    Obama has not been refused the opportunity to address a joint session of Congress. He has just been told that he’ll have to do it at a less disruptive time, i.e., the next evening.

    In any case, given Obama’s rude behavior at previous addresses, even a direct denial would be justified. He has entered the chambers of the co-equal branch of government where he was has been rude to both the members and to their honored guests. In most civilized places, that will get you dropped from the guest list barring critical situations where exceptions are made. True, a member was rude to him once as well, but that is all the more reason to avoid bringing together such a group when there are sufficient alternative venues, with widespread reporting and full performances posted for leisurely viewing.

  4. WR says:

    @JKB: Not rude, JKB. The word you’re looking for is “uppity.” You might as well use it — we all know what you mean.

  5. Jay Tea says:

    @WR: Obama’s ability to be a consummate prick transcends race.

    Now back to your kennel, lickspittle.


  6. Boyd says:

    @WR: I’m not going to speculate why you bring the race factor into every discussion, WR, but you must surely realize its overuse, and use in situations where it’s patently unfounded, only undermines your credibility.

  7. Jay Tea says:

    @Boyd: You didn’t actually use “WR” and “credibility” in the same sentence, did you?


  8. WR says:

    @Boyd: Umm, I bring it into conversations like this because it’s so obviously the truth. Sorry you choose not to see it.

  9. G.A.Phillips says:

    He has just been told that he’ll have to do it at a less disruptive time, i.e., the next evening.

    LOL, yup during the Packers season opener….poor idiot can’t win!

    HAHAHAHA…keep turing my state red, you big old MUMMY DUMMY!!!….HAHAHAHAHAHA………….

  10. Contracts says:

    @WR: A professor of mine in college once upbraided me for using “obviously” overmuch. The reason?

    “Words like obviously, clearly, and of course are used when you’re stating something that you can’t prove.”

    Words to live by.

  11. Neil Hudelson says:

    He has entered the chambers of the co-equal branch of government where he was has been rude to both the members and to their honored guests.

    He was ‘”rude” to the House in the past? I’ll bite. Pray tell how has he been “rude?”

  12. Ben Wolf says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    He was ‘”rude” to the House in the past? I’ll bite. Pray tell how has he been “rude?”

    He was elected president.

  13. Jay Tea says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Don’t have a good example of “rude to House members in the House,” but have “rude to guests while in the House” and “rude to House members.” That do?

    State of the Union, 2010. Called out the Supreme Court on the Citizens United case, to their faces, when they couldn’t react without breaking decorum. In the process, deliberately misstated the facts and consequences of the case.

    Pete Hoekstra and Paul Ryan: invited both men to events where Obama would speak (Hoekstra in his own district). Put both men front and center, then trashed them to the crowd — in a setting where it would be expected he would say something nice about them.

    All three examples are where Obama could freely insult the target, but the target couldn’t defend themselves. And all three are “unprecedented.”

    That close enough for ya?


  14. WR says:

    @Contracts: In its most frequent use, I’d agree with you. The habit of sticking “obviously” — like “frankly” — in front of a sentence is lazy writing or speaking, and is an attempt to claim a point without proving it. I would say that my usage here is different. To say that it is obviously the truth is to say that the truth itself it clear to anyone who looks at the situation with unbiased eyes. That’s how I’d differentiate it, anyway. Of course — oops, there I go — it’s probably not a construction I’d use in a type of writing more formal than an argument in a blog comments section. But since the gentleman who commented after me didn’t know, for instance, that there’s an “n” in the word “turning,” I think it’s safe to say that the rules are a little looser here than, say, in a scholarly article.

  15. WR says:

    @Jay Tea: Boy, that Obama is rude. Do you know that in a speech with Paul Ryan in attendance he actually described the contents of Ryan’s bill accurately instead of just saying what a genius he was? Just because Paul Ryan was trying to destroy Medicare in order to give more tax breaks to billionaires, that doesn’t mean that anyone should ever say that’s what he was trying to do. That’s mean!

    Another message from the party of personal responsibility…

  16. Davebo says:

    A professor of mine in college once upbraided me for using “obviously” overmuch.

    But apparently never taught you that there is no such word as “overmuch”.

    I’d demand a tuition refund.

    As to Obama’s address, he should just do it from the White House.

  17. Boyd says:

    I need to pay closer attention. I somehow failed to notice that Stormy Dragon already linked to the exact same page I did.

    Then again, he failed to mention that “overmuch” was first used about 600 or so years ago, so I’ve got that going for me.

  18. Jay Tea says:

    I realize this is a foreign concept to you and Obama, but it’s entirely possible to disagree without being disagreeable. And it’s not only possible, but in most cases recommended. It even works sometimes.

    Once again, you prove that you are actually stupider than I thought humanly possible.

    Back to your kennel, lickspittle.


  19. @Boyd:

    Indeed, it shows up several places in the King James Bible and in the plays of Shakespeare, so it can’t even be considered particularly obscure.

  20. Kathy Quane says:

    I believe that Boehner is a real jerk-shouldn’t even be a member of Congress. How dare he disrespect the President of the United States as he did in the President’s Address to Congress.