Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=177022
Story Retrieval Date: 5/19/2013 10:10:12 AM CST
Original photo by the White House, David Charns/MEDILL
1845: Members of Congress sit divided.
1913: President Woodrow Wilson becomes the first to deliver a State of the Union address before a joint-session of Congress.
1947: The address is televised.
Tuesday’s State of the Union address is being touted as a partisan coupling, but some question if this is just another political ribbon-cutting or photo-op.
Last week both Illinois senators, Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk announced they were onboard with the plan to have Democrats and Republicans break tradition and sit beside members of the opposite party. Both senators said they chose to sit together after the Jan. 8 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.
“Traditions that divide us were made to be broken,” Durbin said in a news release. “As we begin to heal after the tragedy in Arizona, it’s important to for our nation’s leaders to show unity in the face of such a divisive act.”
Kirk echoed Durbin’s statement. “Sitting together as Americans rather than partisans is a helpful example of respect and cooperation following the tragedy in Arizona,” he said.
Durbin was also playful about the seating change, telling “Fox News Sunday,” he is bringing popcorn and Kirk will bring a Coke with two straws.
Washington think-tank Third Way proposed the bi-partisan seating Jan. 10, two days after the assassination attempt in Tucson.
In an open letter to members of Congress, Jonathan Cowan, the president of Third Way, wrote that people are rooting for compromise.
“We believe that Americans want and expect our leaders to truly work together on the great challenges facing our nation,” Cowan said.
In addition to the idea of bi-partisan seating, Third Way also suggested a yearly bi-partisan retreat for all members of Congress and for money to be set aside so members can travel to another’s district or state.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., also sent a letter to his colleagues, calling for the bi-partisan seating.
“Political differences will always generate a healthy debate, but over time the dialogue has become more hateful and at times violent,” Udall said. “It is important to show the nation that the most powerful deliberative bodies in the world can debate our differences with respect, honor and civility.”
As of Friday afternoon, 30 other senators and 28 members of the House had co-signed Udall’s letter.
Kandie Stroud, a democratic consultant and president of Stroud Communications, a political and media strategy firm, said she has never seen a greater divide in Washington than now.
“When I first came to Washington in 1968, a lot of work was done in the evening,” Stroud said. “I would interview people at dinner parties. There would be Republican and Democrat dinners and cocktails, and it was more amicable.”
Stroud said the parties faded away and were replaced with stronger rhetoric and party polarization. Both parties will use the seating as a photo-op, she said.
“It’s all PR,” Stroud said.
Stroud said even as members of Congress intermingle Tuesday night, it will be business as usual come Wednesday.
Jonathan Peterson, a political science professor at North Park University and former legislative assistant to Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., agreed, and said he is not sure to whom the change of seating is directed.
“I don’t think Sen. Durbin or Sen. Kirk will win more votes or look better to their constituents,” Peterson said. “There’s something real or at least symbolic here. That doesn’t mean it’s just emptiness. Many times bi-partisanship can start with symbolism.”
Peterson said the real test will come Wednesday.
“Sitting together is not going to change anything overnight,” he said.