A few years ago, the State of the Union address came on the heels of the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, and many lawmakers thought it’d be a nice gesture to try something different: bipartisan seating. It wasn’t widely embraced, but it stuck around in 2012 and 2013
’s David Hawkings reports
that we probably won’t see too much of it tonight.
Seems like “date night” just isn’t a thing anymore.
Three years ago, many dozens of Republicans and Democrats arranged to sit side by side at the State of the Union…. The roster of cross-aisle seating arrangements remained plenty big the next year, but there was a noticeable falloff in 2013. And, unless the situation changes in the last hours before President Barack Obama arrives at the Capitol on Tuesday, spotting crossover seatmates in the House chamber looks to be a genuinely difficult task this year.
The putative tradition, like the annual House “civility retreats” more than a decade ago, looks to be fading toward oblivion.
The idea hasn’t entirely disappeared – Hawkings surveyed a few dozen lawmakers’ offices and found a handful of members who committed to bipartisan pairings – but what was once a notable congressional development has clearly begun to evaporate. At its height, 180 members of Congress thought this was a great idea; tonight the total will barely break double digits. What was once the subject of full-page newspaper ads is now an afterthought.
Whether or not this is a good thing is a matter of perspective.
To be sure, Congress is facing difficulties unseen in modern history, much of which are the result of a growing chasm between the parties and the reluctance of Republicans to compromise on major issues. Indeed, at a certain level, it seems almost foolish to even think about who sits with whom for a joint session when GOP leaders have threatened – for the fourth time in three years – to crash the economy on purpose next month unless their hostage demands are met.
That said, there is such a thing as symbolic significance, and those who see value in bipartisan seating certainly have their hearts in the right place.
For example, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who’ll sit tonight with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), told Roll Call, “If we can’t demonstrate [bipartisanship] through the simplest of acts – talking with one another, sitting next to one another at a very important speech – if we can’t do that, then really the public should give up on us.”
But there’s another, non-cynical side to this.
For those who haven’t watched many SOTU addresses, tradition holds that Democrats sit on their side of the aisle during a president’s speech, while Republicans sit on the other. As such, there’s actually a practical benefit for the public when members don’t sit together. Dan Amira made an argument a while back that continues to resonate.
Unity is great, sure, but apart from the entertainment value, there is an important practical reason to maintain the State of the Union’s partisan seating arrangement. A neat separation of the parties allows the American people to see, in real time, their positions on the president’s agenda and the issues of the day. It’s actually very informative and helpful to be able to easily assess which proposals the Republicans and Democrats support, respectively, through the decision to applaud. It also allows us to identify the few party-bucking independent thinkers who, every so often, stand up to clap while the rest of their colleagues remain seated.
Thrown together in one big bipartisan hodgepodge, congressmen and senators would still carefully regulate their applause, but that brief chamber reaction shot on TV becomes nearly impossible to decipher. The country could certainly benefit from more symbolic demonstrations of solidarity, but the State of the Union address is one instance where a stark partisan divide is actually good for democracy.
As long-time readers may recall, this makes sense to me. When Republicans, for example, stand in response to something President Obama says, that conveys something important to the public. The same is true when Democrats stand and GOP members sit on their hands.
Intersperse members and the visual lessons disappear.