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I am not suggesting that because the State of the Union address today is so draped in imperial trappings that Congress should pull the plug. That would be insulting and contrary both to long-standing tradition and the constitutional mandate that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” It is only right that Congress should give the president a hearing if he wants it.
What I am proposing is that Congress ramp down the pomp associated with the event and focus instead on the original purpose of the address: to convey information and make legislative recommendations to the Congress. To put this annual rite in a more balanced and focused light, Congress should restore it as a daytime event. After all, it wasn’t until 1965, at President Lyndon Johnson’s urging, that the speech was switched to prime time to capture a larger TV audience. Even the British monarch’s speech from the throne begins before noon, as it has since the 16th century.
Second, Congress should eliminate seating on the floor of the chamber for all those dignitaries — Cabinet members, joint chiefs, Supreme Court justices and the diplomatic corps. Let them sit in the visitors’ galleries if they wish to attend (though most have day jobs and probably wouldn’t).
Third, let the Speaker and vice president escort the president to the podium from the Speaker’s Lobby (behind the dais) and eliminate the fawning, center-aisle procession. Finally, both chambers should set aside time over the ensuing two or three days to debate the issues raised by the president’s address, along with both Congressional parties’ priorities. This was done at the beginning of the republic and is still the practice in the British Parliament.
These are all modest first steps that Congress can take to signal it is serious about wanting to right the balance between the branches. Then it simply has to take the next step, and the next.
Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.