The historical precedent for canceling or delaying the State of the Union address

Despite criticism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision this week, past governments have made similar decisions.

There is a precedent for delaying the SOTU or delivering the speech in writing, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked President Donald Trump to. (PHOTO CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
There is a precedent for delaying the SOTU or delivering the speech in writing, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked President Donald Trump to. (PHOTO CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi effectively canceled the State of the Union address on Wednesday, in a letter to President Donald Trump.

“Sadly,” Pelosi’s letter said, “given the security concerns and unless the government re-opens this week, I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29th.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said Wednesday afternoon that the letter meant the State of the Union was off, though walked it back later in the day, saying it wasn’t “officially off.”

In any case, Trump won’t be able to give the State of the Union address without Pelosi’s invitation, at least not in its typical format, though she did suggest Trump could, as she told reporters, “make a speech from the Oval Office instead, if he wants,” or he could postpone the joint address or deliver the speech in writing.


While the giving the State of the Union speech in front of a joint session of Congress has become a tradition in recent years, delivering the speech in writing — or even postponing the address — would not be without precedent. As The Washington Post noted Wednesday, though Presidents George Washington and John Adams delivered addresses in person, President Thomas Jefferson sent written copies of his state of the union speech to be read in the House and the Senate. That tradition continued until Woodrow Wilson, in 1913, delivered the speech in person.

The State of the Union has been postponed in the not-too-distant past, as well. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to give his State of the Union address the same day the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded, killing the seven astronauts inside.

“There could be no speech without mentioning [the Challenger tragedy],” Reagan said that afternoon. “But you can’t stop governing the nation because of a tragedy of this kind. So, yes, one will continue.”

At the urging of both parties in Congress and some aides, Reagan ultimately delayed the speech, opting instead for an speech in the Oval Office to address the tragedy and did not give the official State of the Union address until the following week.

There is no precedent, however, for delivering a State of the Union address during a full or partial government shutdown.


As of Thursday, the partial shutdown, now in its 27th day, has broken records, as President Donald Trump and his Republican congressional allies refuse to budge on his demand of $5 billion in funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. An estimated 800,000 federal employees are furloughed or working without pay, missing out on about $2 billion worth of paychecks every two weeks the shutdown continues.

Many federal employees have also reportedly begun filing unemployment claims or considered taking out loans to cover their monthly expenses. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), meanwhile, is on the verge of running out of funding. More than 19 million families rely on the program, and small businesses that accept SNAP will also take a major hit.

FDA has also stopped routine food inspections of seafood, fruits, and vegetables, and domestic violence shelters across the country that rely on Department of Justice funding have begun warning that they can only process funding requests through January 18, Friday of next week. Some employees have reportedly been buying supplies with their own money, not knowing whether they will receive their next paycheck.

Additionally, National Parks are being vandalized, and trash and toilets are reportedly overflowing as staff has been furloughed.

It’s unclear whether the White House will choose to hold the State of the Union address else where — already, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has suggested holding the event in the Senate — or whether Trump will decide, as Pelosi suggested, to broadcast the address live from the Oval Office.