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Honoring Distinguished Visitors

Close-up photo of Winston Churchill speaking in Senate Chamber.

The highest tribute the Senate can accord to a distinguished visitor is to announce the presence of that guest in open session and then briefly recess its formal floor proceedings so that senators may extend personal greetings. This honor is generally conferred upon foreign heads of state and parliamentary leaders. A variation on this procedure is for the Senate to proceed as a body to the Hall of the House of Representatives to attend a joint meeting of Congress to hear remarks by heads of state and prime ministers of nations whose good will is particularly important to the United States. Congress also convenes joint meetings to honor national heroes and to celebrate special anniversaries. Joint meetings of Congress are purely ceremonial in scope and are distinguished from joint sessions, which are sanctioned by the Constitution for delivery of the president's annual State of the Union address and for the quadrennial counting of presidential and vice presidential electoral votes.

The first Senate reception for a distinguished foreign visitor took place on December 9, 1824, to honor the Marquis de Lafayette for his services to the cause of the American Revolution. Several days earlier, a joint Senate-House committee on arrangements had failed to agree on a common program for this occasion and decided to leave it up to each body to plan its own activities. The Marquis entered the Senate Chamber to the announcement, "We introduce the General Lafayette to the Senate of the United States." He was seated at the dais next to the presiding officer, who then adjourned the Senate so that members could pay their respects. According to the record of that day's proceedings, the Marquis "cordially and feelingly reciprocated" those expressions. On the following day, the House received Lafayette in its Chamber. That body's Speaker belatedly invited the Senate, which could not formally respond because it had adjourned for the weekend. Despite this, a number of senators attended and sat in specially reserved chairs, making this, in effect, the first joint meeting of Congress.

Many parliamentary bodies include formal processions among their highest rituals. The only such procession of the Senate takes place when it proceeds to the House for constitutional joint sessions and informal meetings. In this traditional rite, the secretary of the Senate and the sergeant at arms lead the way for the Senate president, or president pro tempore, followed by a double column of senators as they move from their Chamber through the Capitol Rotunda and Statuary Hall to the House Chamber. There they are conducted to reserved seats. In an exception to the southward direction of this procession, House members marched north to the Senate Chamber on December 26, 1941, less than three weeks after the U.S. entered World War II, to receive an address from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. With many members away for the Christmas holidays, congressional officials chose the smaller Senate Chamber to ensure their guest would be honored with a full audience. Since then, improved air transportation and the need for closer personal communication among the world's leaders and lawmakers have significantly increased the frequency of joint meetings.

Baker, Richard A. The New Members' Guide to Traditions of the United States Senate. (Washington, GPO, 2006. S.Pub. 109-25), 19.