Silly State Of The Union Pageantry
As the night of the State Of The Union Address approaches, the silliness in Washington has been taken up a notch.
The silly idea of bipartisan seating at Tuesday’s State Of The Union has taken hold, and it’s made Congress look like a bunch of high school kids looking for prom dates:
WASHINGTON — Mary from Louisiana asked Olympia from Maine because they are BFFs, but had a backup in Bob from Tennessee in case she was rebuffed. Kirsten from New York went the Sadie Hawkins route and asked John from South Dakota, and thus the deal between two members of the Senate with seriously good hair was sealed.
The talk in the West Wing may center on what President Obama plans to say on Tuesday in his State of the Union address to Congress about the still-ailing economy, or United States-China relations, or his education agenda. But here on Capitol Hill, the talk for the last few days has been all about the seating for the president’s speech and just who will be next to whom.
Ever since Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, pushed for lawmakers of both parties to mix it up rather than sit among their own in the House chamber as if the other side has cooties, there has been a mad scramble among lawmakers for just the right partner.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, was early out of the box, saying he would sit next to his political antipode, Senator Tom Coburn, the conservative Republican gentleman from Oklahoma.
Others are doing it by delegation; for instance, Colorado’s two Democratic senators and its four House Republicans will assemble as a group. Illinois’s bipartisan Senate duo, Richard J. Durbin and Mark Steven Kirk, will be joined at the seat, as will the one from Pennsylvania, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey.
Sometimes the link is shared interests, which in Washington does not mean cooking or cycling but committee assignments.
“I asked one of my best girlfriends to be my date for the night,” Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, said of her choice, Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine. “Of course, we share the Small Business Committee.”
“I had backups in case she said no, like Corker or Isakson,” Ms. Landrieu said, referring to Senators Bob of Tennessee and Johnny of Georgia. “These are really great guys. So, we may do a triple date.”
Others who have paired off include Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, and John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, generally considered two of the more well-coiffed and attractive members of the Senate.
The idea of mixing and mingling was originally advocated by the centrist group Third Way after the Tucson shooting that left Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a moderate Democrat from Arizona, critically wounded and spurred calls for a more civilized political discourse.
Mr. Udall quickly embraced it as a way for lawmakers to create new signs of civility visible to the public. It would be a stark contrast from previous years when the two sides of the aisle appeared to be listening to different speeches from different presidents, with Republicans leaping to their feet at the mention of tax cuts, for example, and Democrats embracing pledges of support for social programs.
Since mere moments after the idea was broached, lawmakers have also found themselves under steady questioning from the news media — local and national — demanding to know just whom they plan to sit with. It has made for some pressure, perhaps even some sweaty palms, in finding an available partner.
It’s all kind of dumb, really, and its a way for political leaders to pretend that they’re actually doing something when they really aren’t. There’s nothing stopping Republicans and Democrats from being more bipartisan, or even just being more civil toward their opponents, and the fact that they’re going to sit next to each other for 90 minutes and listen to a long, boring speech doesn’t mean that they’re actually going to do either when the rubber hits the road.
Of course, not everyone is getting on the bandwagon. One Republican Congressman says that the whole idea is a trap:
A proposal for Democrats and Republicans to sit among each other during the State of the Union next week is gaining momentum, but one House Republican said in a radio interview that he thinks the idea is a “trap.”
In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, Ariz. earlier this month that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) critically wounded, Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado suggested that members of the House and Senate end the practice of divided seating along partisan lines during the State of the Union, in the name of civility. Several congressmen have agreed to the mixed-seating plan, but don’t expect to see Republican Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia sitting with any Democrats.
In an interview with conservative radio host Scott Hennen, highlighted by the liberal media watchdog group “Media Matters,” Broun said he was suspicious of the Democrats’ motivations for the mixed seating.
“I already believe very firmly that it is a trap and a ruse that Democrats are proposing,” Broun said. “They don’t want civility. They want silence from the Republicans. And the sitting together being kissy-kissy is just another way to try to silence Republicans, and also to show — to keep the American people from seeing how few of them there are in the U.S. House now.”
Broun was responding to remarks from a caller who said she appreciated observing the partisan divide during the State of the Union. Typically, the president often receives standing ovations during the annual address from members of his own party, while members of the opposition party are more likely to stay seated.
“What the Democrats are going to be doing when Barack Obama spews out all his venom, then, if they’re scattered throughout all the Republicans, then it won’t be as noticeable as if we’re sitting apart,” Broun continued. “So it is a ruse and I’m not in favor of it and I’m talking about it and I hope other members of the Republican conference in the House will not take the bait.”
Broun is being as silly as the people he’s criticizing, of course, but that’s just part of the general silliness that surrounds the State of the Union itself. George Will but it well this morning when he noted that the State of the Union long ago ceased being a mere report from the President to Congress, it’s now a partisan pep rally:
As I noted last week, there’s no reason why we even have to go through this absurd annual spectacle:
It’s hard not to analogize the modern State of the Union Address to the ancient British practice of the Monarch addressing Parliament and telling it what the Crown wished to accomplish. The difference in modern times, of course, is that the British Monarch is merely reading a speech prepared by aides to the Prime Ministers, whereas, American Presidents actually think they have the power to accomplish their goals. At the very least, it strikes me as a good idea to take a step toward restoring the balance between the Executive and Legislative Branches by eliminating this absurd annual spectacle
Over the last several years, it’s been my practice to skip the State of the Union and catch the coverage in the press the next morning. If I break that tradition this year, it will only be because someone has come up with with a really good drinking game.