Musical Chairs at SOTU Hasn’t Inspired Congressional Harmony

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 24: U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) (L) talks to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) before U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address on January 24, 2012 in Washington, DC. Obama said the focal point his speech is the central mission of our country, and his central focus as president, including 'rebuilding an economy where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded.'
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
Jan. 22, 2014, 3:30 p.m.

Con­gress’s prob­lems are too big for a seat­ing chart to fix.

Bi­par­tis­an seat­ing has be­come a staple at re­cent State of the Uni­on ad­dresses, and it may be this year, too. But for all the warm and fuzzy feel­ings the prac­tice is meant to in­spire, the three years on Cap­it­ol Hill since the tra­di­tion began have been among the most par­tis­an and grid­locked of all. Con­gress reached a new mile­stone last year, with the in­sti­tu­tion hav­ing its low­est out­put since 1947.

Bi­par­tis­an seat­ing has be­come the equi­val­ent of re­fer­ring to a polit­ic­al foe as “my friend.”

The prac­tice of law­makers of op­pos­ite parties sit­ting next to each oth­er dur­ing the pres­id­ent’s ad­dress began in 2011 as a re­sponse to the shoot­ing of then-Rep. Gab­ri­elle Gif­fords just weeks be­fore. Many law­makers par­ti­cip­ated, and think tank Third Way helped push the cause.

“There was al­most a phys­ic­al re­ac­tion by mem­bers to Gabby’s shoot­ing, and I think a lot of mem­bers un­der­stood how filled with rage and hatred the polit­ic­al de­bate had been for the pre­vi­ous two years, so there was very much a con­scious ef­fort that we sit to­geth­er,” re­calls former Rep. Brad Miller, who, along with oth­er North Car­o­lina Demo­crats, sat with Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Howard Coble.

In 2012, a hand­ful of law­makers con­tin­ued the prac­tice, with Gif­fords in at­tend­ance sit­ting between Ari­zona’s then-Rep. Jeff Flake, a Re­pub­lic­an, and Rep. Raul Gri­jalva, a Demo­crat. This year, four law­makers — Sens. Mark Ud­all of Col­or­ado, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Ari­zona Reps. Matt Sal­mon and Ron Barber, who holds Gif­fords’s old seat — are spear­head­ing the ef­fort anew, ask­ing House and Sen­ate lead­er­ship to en­cour­age mak­ing bi­par­tis­an seat­ing a per­man­ent tra­di­tion.

“Al­though this ges­ture has not ended the grid­lock on Cap­it­ol Hill, we feel it con­tin­ues to be a step in the right dir­ec­tion, sym­bol­iz­ing the im­port­ance of work­ing to­geth­er across the aisle to solve the com­mon chal­lenges we face in se­cur­ing a strong fu­ture for the United States,” the law­makers wrote in a let­ter. “Per­man­ent bi­par­tis­an seat­ing at the State of the Uni­on would be one small way to bridge the di­vide and to en­cour­age mem­bers to find bi­par­tis­an solu­tions to our na­tion’s prob­lems.”

But don’t ex­pect any dir­ect­ives in Con­gress on the mat­ter, at least not from House Speak­er John Boehner, who will be sit­ting next to Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden. “The Speak­er trusts mem­bers to de­cide where to sit,” Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel said.

Third Way cofounder Matt Ben­nett ar­gues that such sym­bol­ism and ci­vil­ity in high-pro­file polit­ic­al events is im­port­ant, and con­sti­tutes one of many small steps to a func­tion­al Con­gress.

“This spec­tacle at the State of the Uni­on, of one side of Con­gress kind of hop­ping up and ap­plaud­ing and the oth­er glower­ing and stay­ing seated, really un­der­scores a lot of what people are feel­ing dis­heartened about,” Ben­nett says. “So when you have it mixed up a little bit and you don’t have that kind of bi­furc­ated Con­gress that’s so vis­ible in this big an­nu­al event, there is some mean­ing to that. However, we nev­er sug­ges­ted or thought for a second that this was go­ing to fix any­thing. It’s a mar­gin­al dif­fer­ence.”

Miller con­cedes that the prac­tice didn’t do much in al­ter the mood in the halls of Con­gress. But, he adds, “Op­tics are bet­ter than noth­ing. I think it’s bet­ter to do than not do, but I think it’s un­real­ist­ic to think it’s go­ing to have a big ef­fect.”

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