In the wake of President Obama’s call for more civility in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona, some in his party are seeking a symbolic effort to play down partisanship during one of the Capitol’s annual displays of partisanship: the State of the Union speech. Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado has called for mixed seating during the event. The Democratic leaders like it, and Republicans, who are leery of being portrayed as insufficiently sensitive or overly partisan, are not opposing the plan.
Is there anything wrong with the idea? Not really. The tradition of having Democrats sit on one side of the Chamber and Republicans on the other is based on the way Congress operates when it is in a normal session. Congressional seating patterns, not to mention the existence of organized political parties, are nowhere to be found in the Constitution.
However, it is not clear that mixed seating will achieve the avowed purpose of those advocating this measure, which is to avoid the sophomoric displays of partisanship that have become a regular feature of State of the Union speeches. While representatives and senators from both parties stand and applaud, as they should, during the president’s entrance, once the speech starts, the two sides morph into a congressional version of a college football game, where the supporters of the two teams divide the stadium and engage in organized cheers. It doesn’t matter which party holds the White House or Congress. Every year, the president can count on raucous cheers and standing ovations from his fellow party members in the chamber while members of the other party ostentatiously stay seated and silent.
Will mixed seating prevent a recurrence of this nonsense? The answer here is probably not. When the president speaks a line that is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of his own party — for example, one urging Congress not to repeal his health-care program — most Democrats are likely to stand and cheer while Republicans will remain seated (and need to restrain themselves from muttering their disapproval, which would lead to accusations of bad manners, such as those aimed at Justice Samuel Alito, who silently voiced his disapproval at a presidential barb aimed at the Supreme Court last year). The odds are, Democrats will get up and applaud and Republicans will not at certain points in the speech. And they will do so even if they have not clumped together by party.
An even better suggestion than mixed seating would be to do away with this televised extravaganza altogether. While the Constitution does mandate that the president report to the Congress annually on the state of the union, it does not say he needs to go there and speak to them in person on national TV. Until the 20th century, the practice (initiated by Thomas Jefferson, who thought the speech that his two predecessors had delivered was too reminiscent of the British monarch’s annual speech from the throne) was for the president to write his report and then have it delivered via messenger to the Congress, where the Clerk of the House publicly read it. Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of delivering it in person; and as first radio and then television entered into the question, it became a highly choreographed ritual that served as a valuable PR tool for every president.
The point is, if ending the obnoxious partisanship and pointless rituals of the occasion is the goal, the president can write and then deliver his speech from the Oval Office, something that would satisfy his constitutional obligation without forcing the nation to endure a pointless spectacle. While I am sure that no president will take up this suggestion, doing so will not only end the partisanship that nobody likes but might also encourage presidents to stick to serious policy points and avoid the smarmy feel-good touches (such as singling out praiseworthy citizens who have been invited to sit in the gallery) that have made the speech an even lengthier and more boring ordeal that it needs to be.