Congress Speaker Johnson declines request for Ruto to address joint sitting

When President Joe Biden posed for a photo with President William Ruto and First Lady Rachael during the US-Africa Leaders Summit in 2022 at the White House. [Courtesy, White House]

US Congress Speaker Mike Johnson has been blasted for declining a request that would see President William Ruto address a joint sitting during his visit.

Although some sources said the move comes following an objection by key lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Raj Shah who is Johnson’s deputy chief of staff said due to scheduling restraints, they could not accommodate a request for remarks before a joint session.

“Speaker Johnson welcomes President Ruto to the Capitol. We have offered the Kenyan embassy over 90 minutes of engagement including a one-on-one visit and a bipartisan leadership meeting with Speaker Johnson, Leader Jeffries, and Committee Chairmen and Ranking members, and a bicameral meeting. Unfortunately, due to scheduling restraints, we could not accommodate a request for remarks before a Joint Session,” Shah said.

Shah said a joint meeting takes up a lot of energy on Capitol Hill forcing chamber to close for hours and it entails a security hassle.

President Ruto would be the first Kenyan leader to address a joint meeting of Congress and the first African leader to do so since Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spoke in the House chamber in 2006.

But Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Richard Neal (D-MA) in a statement said Johnson’s decision is not only a direct rebuke of the top two lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee but clear evidence of his failure to recognise the importance of the US-Kenya diplomatic relation.

“Africa and its people helped shape our great nation, allowing it to become the superpower that it is today. Strengthening ties across the continent, including with a key strategic partner, Kenya, is of great importance to our shared economic aspirations and democratic values. The continent deserves the same level of respect given to our partners in other parts of the world,” Neal said in the statement.

Neal who is the US Representative for Massachusetts said the Congress and the Republican leadership have invited Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, President Isaac Herzog, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and President Yoon Suk Yeol to address joint meetings of Congress during their official visits to the United States, and “I see no reason why President William Ruto’s upcoming state visit should be any different.”

Ruto will be in Washington on May 23 to mark the 60th anniversary of U.S.-Kenyan diplomatic relations.

The visit is set to strengthen the shared commitment between the two countries to advance peace and security.

He said even in times of great tragedy and global conflict, the Congress has historically shown a depth of focus, and amid appliance acts, there should be time to recognize the importance of President Ruto’s visit.

“I had the privilege of hosting former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, where we spoke about the great opportunities to strengthen relations between our two economies present, and since then, Kenya has only continued to demonstrate its commitment to reaffirming our 60-year partnership. With the Biden Administration already rising to the rightful occasion by hosting a state dinner, the Congress must do the same,” he said.

Congressman and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul and ranking Democrat Gregory Meeks last month requested Speaker Johnson to extend an invitation for Ruto to address a joint meeting.

The duo said such an invitation would underscore the importance of the U.S-Kenya relationship and send a valuable signal to the people of Africa.

In a joint statement, the two said Kenya is a linchpin in heading off Russia’s influence in eastern Africa.

“It’s a stable democracy and a gateway to the region. The United States is its largest export market,” they wrote.