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.
In other words, like Obama, Reagan was playing a political game. He wanted to bring public pressure to bear on the House to vote his way on funding, so he asked for a House-only speech. O’Neill understandably didn’t want his party to be put on the spot so he came up with two “compromise” options to avoid it — either Reagan could take heat off the Democratic-controlled House by speaking to a joint session or he could let them turn the tables by peppering him with questions in lieu of the speech. Like Obama, Reagan backed down. Unlike Obama, Reagan’s game at least was aimed at achieving a policy end. Obama’s game in trying to bigfoot the Republican debate was aimed at his own reelection, the idea being to draw a contrast between the can-do post-partisan jobs-focused incumbent and the squabbling attack dogs in the GOP presidential field who do nothing but criticize poor Bambi. Go figure that Boehner wasn’t eager to let Congress be used as a prop for The One’s campaign. Also unlike Obama, Reagan’s request here wasn’t unprecedented. It is extremely unusual for a president to address one chamber of Congress, but it’s been done before. To my knowledge, no president has ever attempted to schedule a joint address as a means of counterprogramming a key event in the opposition’s presidential selection process. If I’m wrong about that, let me know and I’ll update.
One more thing. Given O’Neill’s clever procedural maneuvering around Reagan’s request and his own willingness to use unorthodox procedures, is there any reason to think he wouldn’t have done what Boehner did if it would have secured an advantage for House Democrats? If he was willing to let Reagan appear before the House on the condition that he engage in “open dialogue” with House members, why wouldn’t he have asked Reagan to wait a day before speaking to the House if that would have served his ends? Or maybe the better question is, why didn’t Boehner follow O’Neill’s lead and do something really unorthodox by offering to let O speak on Wednesday night so long as he took a few questions afterward? If Obama wants to schedule his speeches about grave national matters with a partisan end in mind, then let’s get that partisan end out in the open and have a free-for-all Q&A in front of the cameras. Think The One would go for that? I assume he’d back down just like Reagan did. After all, what’s the point of trying to grandstand and lecture the other party when they get to talk back?