Tomorrow night President Obama will give the first State Of The Union address of his second term. We'll all react to this speech in different ways, but the reaction of Congress will be the usual: alternating wild and raucous applause with stony glares of disapproval, depending on the particular subject being addressed. After the speech is over, Congress will go back to what it loosely calls "work," and largely ignore the speech's suggestions for legislation. Some things the president asks for will get addressed in typical roundabout fashion, but many other things will be completely dropped for political reasons of one sort or another. It didn't always used to be this way, though, at least not on the surface. Congress used to take the president a lot more seriously, which is a tradition that seems ripe for revival.
Political pundits, for some inexplicable reason, always deride State Of The Union speeches as being mere "laundry lists." There's no reason for them to do so, because this is actually the whole point of the speech. Everyone now focuses on the first part of the relevant text from the Constitution, while forgetting what comes after. The Constitution dictates that one part of the duties of the president is: "He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." See? Right there in the definition, it tells the president to provide a legislative laundry list to Congress. And at the start of our nation's history, Congress used to be a lot better at being the "laundromat" (to stretch this metaphor a bit).
The speech, of course, didn't always used to be a speech. Up until Franklin Roosevelt, it was called the "President's Annual Message to Congress," in fact. Rich Rubino of the Huffington Post has a great overview of some of the historic changes this address has gone through. But setting aside the transformation of the speech itself, the way Congress used to respond to it is worth some historical exploration as well.
From the early days of our government, the president's annual message was treated with a certain amount of respect which has now, sadly, faded. What used to happen is the text was carefully divided into separate proposals, and each proposal would be sent to the relevant congressional committees for action. A paragraph on budget items would go to the budgetary committees, a foreign policy proposal would go to the foreign affairs committees, and so on. The president's ideas would get a hearing and discussion from the relevant divisions of Congress. After all, these "measures" had been judged "necessary and expedient" by the president, so the least Congress could do was to take a look at them.
This, it bears mentioning, in no way guaranteed that the president got everything he wanted (or even "most" of what he wanted). Divided government has always been possible under the American system, and even when one party rules the House, the Senate, and the White House, often times the houses of Congress don't agree with their own standard-bearer. To say nothing of the bickering which takes place between the two houses, even when run by the same party.
To put this another way, sometimes these ideas would make it through one house and run into a brick wall in the other. Sometimes the ideas would make it out of committee only to be voted down in their own house. And sometimes the proposals would just die in committee (or, as they put it back then, "be allowed to lie on the table").
But even proposals that were likely doomed from the start at least received a modicum of attention by Congress. And the public. Nowadays, the president is treated no different, really, than any particular citizen who contacts elected representatives and attempts to get a law written. Since Congress passes the laws, they now all but consider themselves as the sole source of any political proposals. If the president says something in his speech that they're already working on, well, then they might just be able to help him out -- but otherwise the issues the president brings up are largely forgotten when Congress gets back to work.
This is a shame. Perhaps I'm just being incredibly naive, but it seems to me that Congress giving the president the respect of, say, guaranteeing at least a committee-level vote on every suggestion within the State Of The Union would be a good tradition to revive. I'm not so naive that I'd expect a house now held by the opposing party would do such a thing, but if the president's political party holds either house, it seems they could offer him the respect of taking his agenda ideas seriously enough to at least hold a few hearings or attempt to draft a bill to address. If, for instance, Democrats had a strong and bold Senate Majority Leader right now (don't worry, I said "if" -- I'm nowhere near naive enough to expect such a thing from Harry Reid), imagine the political capital he or she could earn by announcing, before the State Of The Union took place, a pledge to bring each laundry list item up in the relevant committees, at the very minimum.
Now would be a great time to do so, in fact, since President Obama is currently a lot more popular than Congress (or even "Democrats in Congress"). Reviving the tradition of promising to address the issues the president raises in his annual speech might help to rub off a little of that popularity on Democrats politically brave enough to act on the president's measures. If the Republicans were smart, they'd even realize that they too can make a kind of political hay out of such a tradition -- by sending everything in the president's speech to committees to be loudly denounced and voted down (in order to please their own base).
Maybe it'd all just result in more grandstanding, and maybe nothing positive could ever come of such an experiment. I remain convinced, however, that such an experiment is at least worth a try. Instead of just concentrating on two or three items from the president's speech, flood the channel! Give the American public (well, those who watch C-SPAN, at any rate...) an honest debate on each and every presidential proposal. If presidents knew that such respect would be given their ideas, one can only imagine what they'd stick in their speech to at least be discussed in committee.
Congress should take its implied role as laundromat seriously, when the president offers up his list. They should separate out the fabrics and colors, and send each bundle off to the proper group to handle it. Some will end up in the eternal spin cycle and never reappear, but some might just emerge freshly-scented, properly folded, and ready to wear (OK, really, I will quit this household-chore metaphor now, I promise).
Seriously, though, reviving this tradition wouldn't give the president any additional power -- congressional horse-trading would still be required to pass any actual laws. But I believe the benefits in political trust would be greater than just being seen as a gesture, or dog-and-pony show. At the very least, the public would know that Congress is at least attempting to get a few things done. Right now, even saying that would be an improvement, in the eyes of most.
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant