As we celebrate our first president’s birthday today and mark the 222nd anniversary of the 1st Congress next week, it is fitting to consider the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. Rather than attempt an overview of interbranch dynamics, I will instead focus on a small but symbolic intersection of the two — the president’s annual State of the Union address before Congress.
Presidents George Washington and John Adams delivered their annual messages to Congress in person. President Thomas Jefferson abandoned the practice because he felt it smacked too much of the monarch’s “Speech from the Throne” at the opening of Parliament. (It wasn’t until 1913 that President Woodrow Wilson resumed the practice.)
While I previously dismissed Jefferson’s decision as an overreaction, this year, for the first time, it struck me that he may have been right. Perhaps I had been so blinded by the pageantry and entertainment value of this annual state ritual that I never clearly saw how much it diminishes Congress. It really is a vestige of “the imperial presidency” so derided by scholars and others in the last century.
My epiphany had nothing to do with the latest president or what he said on Jan. 25. I thought President Barack Obama did a marvelous job of packaging his long-standing priorities in uplifting, Reagan-esque rhetoric about the future. And the speech was well-received by those in the House chamber and the public generally.
What called my attention more to the Congress this time may have been the empty seat reserved for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and the related bipartisan seating arrangements that some chose to signal a new civility. It caused me to recognize this as one of the few occasions that the American people really see Congress. But what do they see? First, they see the president entering the chamber to the stentorian proclamation of the House Sergeant-at-Arms and a standing ovation, then making his way slowly down the center aisle, being greeted warmly by Members who have staked out nearby seats all day just to shake his hand.
The viewing audience then hears the only words uttered by the Speaker of the House, again introducing the president to another standing ovation. The people watch the president speak while Members and assembled guests sit quietly, in rapt attention — a well-pressed backdrop to the presidential performance. Silent, that is, until the president delivers one of his applause lines, at which half the Members leap to their feet, cheering wildly, like so many synchronized jacks-in-the-box. Then, another applause line and the other half rises, shouting and clapping.
Congress as a body of legislators is missing in action in its own quarters. Yes, the TV networks allow a representative of the opposition party to respond afterward from some undisclosed location. Other Members may wander down to the flood-lit Statuary Hall and deliver sound bites for their network affiliates. Collectively, though, Congress comes across as a supine beast, lying at the feet of its master.