Once a year, on a winter morning, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) changes his routine. Rather than going to his desk in the Rayburn House Office Building, the 11-term Congressman makes his way to the House chamber.
Arriving no later than 9 a.m., Engel takes a seat along the center aisle and waits. And then he waits some more.
He will spend the next 12 hours anticipating the moment when the president of the United States will enter the room to deliver his annual address. Engel, along with dozens of other House Members, will rise from that coveted perch on the aisle, thrust his hand toward the president and finally reach the goal: the moment when the leader of the free world will smile, shake it and say hello.
“It’s a great celebration,— Engel says. “I have been there to greet every president in the 22 years that I’ve been there, whether Democrat or Republican, because the president is the president of all of us.—
Securing an aisle seat is no easy task. House rules state that there is no assigned seating in the chamber and that staffers cannot save seats for their bosses. Over the years — particularly after President Lyndon Johnson moved the television broadcast of the State of the Union to prime time in 1965 — more and more Members have attempted to secure an aisle seat. The trend has especially caught on in recent years. During President George H.W. Bush’s tenure, Engel says, he would arrive in the chamber at 6 p.m. and be able to secure an aisle seat. Now he must arrive 12 hours before the 9 p.m. speech.
“What’s happened through the years is that you’ve got to get there earlier and earlier because more people come,— Engel says. “You have to be there yourself, so instead of coming to the office, I go to the floor and I wait.—
Twelve hours in the chamber without a phone or computer may seem like a waste of time, but Engel says he actually gets a lot of work done. He opens letters, does a lot of reading and even hosts a few meetings from his seat on the aisle.
“You don’t have to stay glued to your seat. You can get up and walk around,— he says. Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) “was looking out for my seat and I was looking out for hers when each of us would get up to walk around. That was contributing to bipartisanship on the floor.—
Engel and Schmidt are often joined on the aisle by other Members such as Reps. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), none of whom could be reached for comment. Bachmann, however, was responsible for one of the most noteworthy aisle interactions in recent memory when in 2007 she embraced, kissed and held onto President George W. Bush for more than 30 seconds.
Engel, who settles for a handshake, says there is a certain camaraderie among the early birds.
“What we do is, after a while, we kind of have a little bit of a picnic,— he says. “We pass around some snacks.—
Engel began his tradition of sitting on the aisle at his first State of the Union in 1989. His colleague, then-Rep. Sonny Montgomery (D-Miss.), mentioned that he was friendly with President George H.W. Bush and that he planned to sit on the aisle in order to greet him when he entered the House chamber. Engel asked Montgomery whether he could join him and fellow Rep. Mike Parker (D-Miss.), and Montgomery obliged. That evening, Engel sat on the aisle and met the president for the first time.
“I always think it’s great that the president knows me by name and face,— Engel says of sitting on the aisle. “Having done it, it’s sort of become a tradition of mine.—
Regardless of whether there is a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, he can be seen reaching out to shake that hand.
“For me it’s respect,— he says. “I voted for Barack Obama. I like him, I think he’s a good president.— But if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had won, “I would be there shaking his hand.—
While it is nice to honor the presidential office, Engel says the real reason he sits on the aisle is because his constituents back in New York love to see him on TV. When he’s in his home district, voters often mention the State of the Union.
“It could be September or October and constituents will say to me, Oh I saw you on TV!’ And I’ll think it was a great interview and ask what I was saying and they’ll say, No, you were shaking the president’s hand on the aisle!’— Engel says with a chuckle. “As long as they love it, I love it.—