Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What useful purpose does the State of the Union address really serve?

Every January after the new Congressional session has begun, we are treated, or subjected, to a formal statement by the President of the United States in the State of the Union address (SOTU).

It is the only time when all three branches of government gather in a common place, in the House of Representatives chamber, where senators, representatives, Supreme Court justices and cabinet secretaries jointly participate in an event.

Each year, one cabinet secretary is appointed to be at a physically distant, secure, and undisclosed location during the SOTU so that if there was an attack on the Capital during the address killing the president and many of the top officials, someone in the line of succession to the president would survive.

The reason there is a SOTU address is constitutional. Article II, Section 3, Clause 1, states that the President “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” in an “Annual Message.”

According to house.gov, through the years the presidential address has gone through a series of changes, both in name and in content. For the first century and a half it was called the “Annual Message,” but in 1947 it became known officially as the State of the Union message/address. Notably, from Thomas Jefferson’s presidency up to Woodrow Wilson’s, the state of the union was a written communication.

In prior incarnations the event “included agency budget requests and general reports on the health of the economy. During the 20th century, Congress required more-specialized reports on these two aspects, separate from the Annual Message.”

Other changes occurred, and with the advent of radio, which first broadcast the SOTU in 1923, then television, which first televised the address in 1965, house.gov tells us that these technologies helped “the State of the Union [evolve] into a forum for the President to speak directly to the American people.”

The new technologies allowed the SOTU to be transformed from a vehicle to inform the Congress of the condition of the nation into something very different. What we have today is a grand spectacle staged for the primary benefit of the person who is the President of the United States and the political party to which he belongs. A theatrical coup of proportions only dreamed of by PR folks that is covered on radio, television and the Internet, the State of the Union Show has devolved into a grandiose occasion for advancing the president’s political ideas; essentially a highly over-promoted campaign speech.

In this forum the president can say whatever he or (someday) she wants to without opposition. There’s no truth-detector, as former President Bill Clinton once complained about talk radio.

After the speech is over, we are treated to the predictable fawning by the president’s fans and carping by his political opponents for days, accompanied by pro and con analysis from pundits, dutifully covered by the national media, ad nauseam.

Now, it is true that since 1966 the opposition party has been given the opportunity to respond, but that is for only several minutes to counter the president’s hour-long speech. This year, the opposition response lasted less than 10 minutes. But if the SOTU message really were a non-political assessment of the state of the union, there would be no need for an opposition response.

The fact that there has been an opposition response for nearly 50 years further underscores the heavily political nature of the address, and the pointlessness of it as a vehicle that imparts important information. It is now merely a political event glorifying the sitting president, who in this setting more resembles a monarch than an elected public servant.

The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano, writing for The Daily Signal, commented on the content of this year’s SOTU address, and defended the event as a still useful feature of our country’s government. “The State of the Union address shows not just Americans, but the entire world, that America is still an exceptional nation—one that believes in the rule ‘by the people for the people.’”

That is one perspective. A different perspective is that the many hours, security costs and other assets that are utilized to stage this once-important event would be better spent on some productive endeavor.

It is impossible to completely remove political components and policy disagreements from the SOTU, as at least some of what a president says will necessarily have political implications and will not be agreeable to the opposition party. However, there seems lately to have been little if any effort to provide a politically neutral analysis of the national status, but instead the presidents have focused on scoring political points against an effectively disarmed opponent.

Since the usefulness of the SOTU in the functioning of our government has been reduced to nearly nothing, should it be done away with? Perhaps it can again become relevant and useful if we return to having the president communicate to Congress through a written message. Or at the very least, stop broadcasting it, and restore decorum to the event.

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