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.
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.