Fort Report: State of the Union

Jan 25, 2019
Fort Report

Two things of serious note happened in D.C. this week.  First, the partial government shutdown crossed over an inglorious threshold, making it the longest shutdown in U.S. history.  Second, the Speaker of the House denied the President of the United States the use of the traditional venue of the House of Representatives to speak to the American people.  These things have never happened before.

By way of historical background, there is no date set in stone for the President to deliver a State of the Union Address.  Article II, Section, 3, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution merely 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.”  There is no constitutionally-derived reason that the State of the Union Address must be next Tuesday or on a Tuesday at all, though the National Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 mandates that a Budget Message be delivered by the President to Congress no later than two weeks after Congress convenes in January.

Some argue that it is inappropriate, insensitive, and even cruel to hold a large celebratory gathering such as a State of the Union, with all its pomp and pageantry, when a portion of our country is hurting.  I hear those concerns.  On the other hand, we have lived through far more trying times, yet, for the last 100 years, the State of the Union was almost always delivered, per custom, in person, in the House chamber, within a short period following the convening of a new Congress.  The address was given during the divisive Vietnam War, during the apex of Watergate, during violent civil unrest on our streets, during World Wars I and II.  Even when Democrat Speaker “Tip” O’Neill and Republican President Ronald Reagan were at loggerheads, the State of the Union tradition continued.  Even after Bill Clinton was impeached by the House, he still delivered the State of the Union in that same House.

Continuing the State of the Union in its customary place and time, before a joint session of Congress, with the Supreme Court in attendance, says to the American people that our country endures, our institutions endure, our traditions, our values, our very faith in our republic and our system of governance endures, no matter what the political climate in the country or the world, no matter which party or person occupies the Oval Office.  By its durable stature, the State of the Union says we can agree to disagree, but on this day, at this hour, in this hallowed and historic chamber, we will not let those disagreements overshadow the enduring importance of the institution itself.

The State of the Union Address is not some arcane triviality to be dispensed with for transitory partisan gain.  In all fairness, a government shutdown should not be taken for transitory political gain either.  The State of the Union should transcend these fleeting political dynamics.  It is a living, breathing, decorous and bipartisan rite that helps ensure comity in the country, even in the midst of significant philosophical disagreement. 

As I was finishing this Fort Report, the President announced his support of an agreement to end the government shutdown and reopen the government for three weeks to give the space for proper border security negotiations between Republicans and Democrats.  For the good of federal workers.  For the good of their families.  For the State of the Union.