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.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. KipEsquire says:

    Modest proposal: Have them seated by seniority. Isn’t that how committee meetings are set up?

  2. Matt Parker says:

    I think you should take a drink when the camera pans to the following individuals:

    1. Joe Wilson (bonus if he’s coughing)
    2. Samuel Alito (bonus if one eye is twitching)
    3. Michelle Bachmann (bonus if she’s smiling)
    4. Rosa DeLauro (just because the camera’s love her)
    4. Joe Lieberman (bonus if he’s talking to either McCain or Graham)
    5. John McCain (bonus if he’s talking to either Lieberman or Graham)
    6. Lindsay Graham (bonus if he’s talking to either McCain or Lieberman)
    7. Alan West
    8. Mitch McConnel (bonus if his eyes are open)

  3. Matt Parker says:

    wow. My spelling was atrocious.

    4. should be because the cameras love her
    6. Lindsey
    7. Allen West
    8. McConnell

  4. James Joyner says:

    If they’re going to have mixed seating, why not do it by state? That would at least have something to do with our representation system.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    I’m actually looking forward to what the president has to say.

    I felt the same way when it was a president I didn’t support.

    I don’t think symbolism is automatically empty or meaningless. Symbolism is important and useful — up to a point.

    I know all the cool kids are like, totally, not into this, because it’s so like, old and all, and the cool kids of course would rather read a policy paper. But the cool kids, as is usually the case, are wrong.

  6. floyd says:

    “Broun is being as silly as the people he’s criticizing”
    True… They have both come out of their “war-rooms”, “deathly serious”, and have the opposition in the “crosshairs”, Broun is right on “target” and has hit a “bull’seye” with his commentary. He holds the “high ground”.
    The Democrats see this as their “best shot” and they “aim” to take the visual impact of “troop cohesion” and “blow it out of the water”, inflicting as many “casualties” as possible by dispersing the “enemy” on the “field of battle”.

    Language can be silly when motives are not and vice versa.

  7. ponce says:

    Going through things like “absurd annual spectacles” is what makes us human.

    Libertarian is just another name for Asperger’s sufferer.

  8. Tlaloc says:

    I’m amazed anyone still watches these things.

  9. john personna says:

    If they’re going to have mixed seating, why not do it by state? That would at least have something to do with our representation system.

    I had assumed that was the new system.

  10. Trumwill says:

    What Mr Reynolds said. The State of the Union is a part of our protocol, dates back a really long ways, and is – in a sense – specified in the Constitution. That we make a show of it is hardly a surprise. Or, for that matter, a problem.

    But at the root of it, it is part of a tradition in which the President lays out his agenda not before this sympathetic group or that one, but in front of the entire nation. There are a number of ways that this could be done, but I prefer to have a protocol for it.

  11. Matt says:

    Just wanted to second what Michael said. While wonks, and those who play along at home (like most of us commentators), can get pretty cynical about “empty ritual” — the fact is symbolism does matter and is important (see all the knashing of teeth around Tucson as proof of that). The ritual of the State of the Union is an important part of the “circular time” (to get a bit Anthro) of American Politics.

    Plus, it’s my suspicion that it’s been all ritual (versus dissemination of information) for quite a while (at least post WWII, if not prior to WWI). The bigger question is how is the ritual changing – and will it be allowed to change (see Joe Wilson as indicative of that).

    Either way, I do look forward to it (I’ve been going to a bar that broadcasts it for the last few years) and I did watch (and will watch in the future) when I wasn’t a particular fan of the sitting president.

  12. @Michael,

    I agree that there is usefulness in having the President make a speech outlining his political goals. The thing that I have increasingly disliked about the event as currently presented is that it elevates the President vis-a-vis the other branches in a way that I don’t think is fully appropriate. It is too much “speech from the throne” for my tastes.

  13. michael reynolds says:


    I hear and agree with your anti-royalism.

    I think the problem comes more from the congressional end than the White House. Congress since the 60’s at least has been happily ceding power to the President. They are less and less functional, less competent, more likely to be run by clowns or apparatchiks. They haven’t adapted, and any time there’s a tough decision to make they wait on the president. There’s a reason their approval rating is in the toilet.

  14. sam says:

    Oh lighten up, Doug, for Christ’s sake. Democracy is, in no small part, theater. This is one of the acts. So what? The Athenians twigged to this 2400 years ago. (Of course, they had satyr plays to cut some of the tedium…Hmmm, there’s a thought.) And you can just bet a lot of those shiney, new, antigubmint tea party congress folks are gonna be peeing in their pants with excitement to be in the room. Imagine the thought balloon: “Holy Smokes!! I’m a US Congresscritter!, at the real State of the Union speech!, and there’s the president in the flesh!! Jeepers, wait’ll I tell the folks back home. Golly!)