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The Constitution and the SOTU

constitution-preamble-gavelTo agree with Doug Mataconis’ post, The State Of The Union Is Pointless, I would point to the text of the US Constitution.  In Article II, Section 3, the Constitution lays down the following charge for the President:

He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient

Now, despite the fact that we are taught in school that the President gives the SOTU  because the Constitution requires it, the fact of the matter is that it does not, at least not in the form that we think of it.  Note:  no requirement for an annual statement and no requirement for a speech.

This was a passage and a requirement written for a very different time when members of Congress might, in fact, need to be informed of the state of the union since they might not know.  This was a passage written for an era without true mass media and instantaneous communication.  The passage also makes it clear that the President can make policy recommendations to Congress.

But of course Congress already knows the state of the union before the President reports upon it.  And, further, there is communication between the two branches on an ongoing basis.  As such, I think a pretty cogent argument can be made that the requirements in Article II, Section 3 are fulfilled on an ongoing basis by the normal operations of the US government in the 21st Century.  The speech is superfluous.

I used to watch the speech out a combination of professional and civic responsibility and then because of blogging.  At this point, I pay attention to the news coverage after the event, but I no longer make it a point to watch the speech.

Of course, even when I watched the thing, I argued that the sound bites from the speech were more important than the speech itself.

Over time, I have come to agree with Matthew Shugart’s sentiment,  Down with the State of the Union:

It’s a worst-of-both-worlds form of political communication: All the pomp of a Speech from the Throne without any of the give-and-take of Question Period.

Of course, we are creatures of tradition and, perhaps more importantly, President’s see the speech as politically useful, so it will continue.

At a minimum, all of this points to the fact this is a political speech and event, not a constitutional one, despite arguments to the contrary.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    I think many people, including the media and commentariat, now watch the SOTU for the same reasons that people watch NASCAR – for the spinouts and crashes.

    Television cameras scan and pan to the reactions and expressions of those in the audience, often catching members of congress yawning, scowling, sitting on their hands, perhaps applauding. People wait for the moment that catches Boehner frowning, or Durbin texting, Cantor sleeping, or Justice Alito mouthing “no no you idiot,” or Obama inexplicably stating something like “I’ve ordered the United Nations to begin confiscating guns, effective midnight tonight,” stuff like that.

    All of this provides the media machine with sustenance for the evening wrap-up and for the next round of Sunday talkies.

    It would be interesting to limit the SOTU to 45 minutes and open the floor to an exchange between members of Congress and the President. Finally, eliminate the opposition response, which is watched only by dead voters in Chicago.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So if a President threw a SOTU speech and nobody showed up, nothing would happen?

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  3. JKB says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Not he news media and political pundits would go ballistic. What are they going to do in the waning days of January without the spectacle? But a good way to wean them off the SOTU is to give it during the Super Bowl. That’d pop a few blood vessels.

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  4. Rob in CT says:

    I too have always liked the idea of Question Time, and the pomp & bullshit of the SoTU has always rubbed me the wrong way (all that clapping, meh).

    I wonder how it would play out in a US setting, though. British Question Time is great and all, but I’ve come to think that’s mostly because they’re British, not because they have QT.

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  5. Pinky says:

    Again, I really recommend Kevin Williamson’s article on the subject at NRO.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/article/369607/great-caesars-ghost-kevin-d-williamson

    Agree with him or not, the guy can write.

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    At this point, I pay attention to the news coverage after the event, but I no longer make it a point to watch the speech.

    Debates too, for me. In fact, I may quit watching any coverage except polls a couple weeks later. That’s the only news from a SOTU or debate that matters.

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  7. Gromitt Gunn says:

    And yet, if our current President did stop giving a State of the Union address, the set of people who lose their marbles over Nobama not being available enough to photographers would be losing their marbles over Obummer’s arrogance by unilaterally engaging in Marxi-Kenya-Muslim-WTFBBQ tricksiness.

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  8. gVOR08 says:

    @Pinky: Mr. Williamson does write well, by the standards of a Tea Party audience. Which is to say you can get affirmation from this piece, but aside from the fact that Mr. Williamson recently attended a porn convention, did you learn anything? Is there any evidence Mr. Williamson had a problem with the SOTU before the president was blah?

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  9. C. Clavin says:

    @gVOR08:
    What more do you expect from the NRO?

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  10. Pinky says:

    @gVOR08: Weird criterion. I haven’t learned anything from any of the pieces criticizing the State of the Union addresses. I suggested this one because the writing is good, and I appreciated him hammering the speech for its imperial trappings more effectively than any of the others I’ve read.

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  11. SKI says:

    Nitpick: Claiming that something that is “Constitutional” isn’t “political” is completely naive.

    Of course the SOTU is polictical – all the actors are politicians. So?

    The reality is that is DOES provide a forum for those that aren’t politically engaged routinely to get a snapshot of the “lay of the land”. It may not be a requirement, and is certainly not must-see for those of use who remain engaged in what is going on, but it is convienent for a significant portion of the citizenry.

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  12. C. Clavin says:

    The overarching theme of the SOTU was inequality.
    There is a book out called Capital in the 21st Century which deals with this.
    It essentially puts the lie to Conservative economic theories of the past 30 years.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/29/opinion/capitalism-vs-democracy.html?ref=opinion
    Pretty interesting stuff.

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  13. @SKI:

    Nitpick: Claiming that something that is “Constitutional” isn’t “political” is completely naive.

    I don’t think I argued that at all.

    The reality is that is DOES provide a forum for those that aren’t politically engaged routinely to get a snapshot of the “lay of the land”.

    But the problem with that is that the politically unengaged aren’t paying attention this speech any more than they are paying attention to other activities of the government. It may have served that function back decades ago when there were two or three channel and there was nothing else to watch than the SOTU, but those days are long gone.

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  14. Pinky says:

    @SKI:

    The reality is that is DOES provide a forum for those that aren’t politically engaged routinely to get a snapshot of the “lay of the land”.

    I don’t think so. The speech is designed, typically, to ignore the political events of the past year and list things that the party in power would like to (have the public think it wants to) do. The speech is a lot like tv’s upfront week, when the networks announce their great new shows.

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  15. Matt Bernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It may have served that function back decades ago when there were two or three channel and there was nothing else to watch than the SOTU, but those days are long gone.

    To that point, I think the recent trend in coverage to focusing on whose attending the event as guests (Nugent, Hannity, or “real people” who represent X) and the “street theatre” of it (“You Lie” and the “dressing down of the supreme court”) also point to a shift in the SoTU’s overall function within the broader ecosystem of political discourse.

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  16. An Interested Party says:

    Agree with him or not, the guy can write.

    Oh my, such Sturm und Drang! I wonder if Williamson was so nauseated by the SOTU when Bush used to put people to sleep or when that great superhero Reagan was soaring the heights…

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  17. Pinky says:

    I’ve seen the comparison to kabuki theater – I think of it more like a renaissance festival, everyone walking around with Ye Olde Englishe clothes and accents pretending that something is real when no one actually believes it.

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  18. Pinky says:

    @gVOR08: @An Interested Party: I don’t know of any evidence about how Williamson felt about Reagan’s or others’ SOTU speeches. Considering he’s saying the same thing that every other linked-to article has said, I don’t see why you can’t just roll with it. It’s permissible to agree with someone you agree with even if he might be on the other side.

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  19. @Matt Bernius: Perhaps, although the guest in the gallery thing started with Reagan (at least).

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  20. An Interested Party says:

    …I don’t see why you can’t just roll with it.

    Well, when the presidency becomes as dictatorial as Caesar’s reign, perhaps then it might be as easy to roll with…and before you are tempted to write that was just a rhetorical flourish on his part, it does sound similar to some of the (just as) silly charges that were leveled against the Bush Administration…hyperbole and all of that…

    It’s permissible to agree with someone you agree with even if he might be on the other side.

    Indeed it is…at the same time, Williamson would have more credibility if he leveled these same charges against those on his side…

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  21. SKI says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But the problem with that is that the politically unengaged aren’t paying attention this speech any more than they are paying attention to other activities of the government. It may have served that function back decades ago when there were two or three channel and there was nothing else to watch than the SOTU, but those days are long gone.

    WIth the usual caveat that anecdotes aren’t data, I’m aware of several people/couples who don’t follow politics all that closely that still routinely watch the SOTU. They view it as their civic duty.

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  22. @SKI: I think you are correct that there is a sample of persons who will watch things like the SOTU who otherwise don’t pay attention. Perhaps that makes it worth it, but I have growing doubts. At least in part I think popping your head in on the SOTU and then popping back out of politics leads to a sense that the president has a lot more power than he does and that more policy issues are actually addressed than is the case.

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  23. Matt Bernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Perhaps, although the guest in the gallery thing started with Reagan (at least).

    Correct. I didn’t intend to suggest it was a recent (god, Reagan really isn’t “recent” is it?) occurrence.

    However, I’d argue that the gallery has become increasingly important in recent years, while the substantive content of the speech has become, arguably less important.

    Joshua Meyorwitz, following McLuhan, argues that this is how emergent media disrupts traditional cultural practices even as those practices continue. Whats telling is that Meyorwitz used the coverage of Carter as examples of how TV was disrupting traditional media coverage of a president. Since I buy into Meyorwitz’s argument, it makes sense that Reagan would be the president who ushered in the beginning of the transformation of the SoTU from what it “was” to what it has “become” (pure political media theatre).

    It also stands that the SoTU would reach an advanced stage of this transformation (who knows where it will go from here) under Obama, our first “social media” president (by that I mean the President who came to power in the most fragmented, and, at the same time, most always broadcasting, media environment in recorded history).

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