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State of the Union: Why Members Keep Showing Up

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Sens. Charles E. Grassley, left, chats with Rep. Louie Gohmert, right, with Sen. Chris Coons in the middle, at the State of the Union in 2014. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

This year there are more defensible rationales than ever for members of Congress to miss the State of the Union address. But there doesn’t seem to be any groundswell of absenteeism in the works.

The seventh year is only exceeded by the eighth as the nadir of any president’s influence — especially when, as with Barack Obama and all four previous two-term presidents, his party controls neither half of Congress.

Those circumstances alone mean there was never a strong chance a proposal unveiled Tuesday night would be enough of a big deal to make it into the history books. So lawmakers never needed to worry that skipping the speech risked missing a magical I-was-in-the-room-when moment to share with their grandchildren.

But those concerns have only been more emphatically allayed by the administration itself. The White House’s own marketing strategy for Obama 2015 has made plain that Democrats shouldn’t feel obligated to show up so they can react excitedly to whatever the president says, and nor do the Republicans need to be on hand so they can sit on their hands.

The president has clearly concluded that announcing a bold new initiative from the well of the House, and before a national television audience, is so 20th century. The big speech is no longer the best way to spark momentum in Congress or enthusiasm outside the Beltway. That’s why Obama has spent much of the past two weeks traveling the country, doling out what his team has termed “SOTU Spoilers” — his agenda for improving the housing market in Phoenix, plans for free community college in Tennessee, a broadband expansion proposal in Iowa, cybersecurity and identity theft initiatives at telegenic locales a few blocks from the White House.

Each of those events generated a headline of its own. So the biggest surprises after the speech may be what sort of headlines put a fresh cast on the content the following day.

Shaping the coverage is one of the most meaningful contributions senators and House members traditionally make to the annual ritual. But they no longer are obligated to trumpet their enthusiasm or disdain for the president’s remarks before the crush of television cameras in Statuary Hall, which gets transformed for the night into the world’s most ornate soundstage.

The era of social media means members can slip into sweatpants, crack open a beer and live-tweet commentary from the comfort of their English basement apartments several blocks away. And for those whose main goal is to have their reactions read by their constituents in the local press, a smartphone is generally the way to go — because there are precious few newspapers left with their own correspondents posted at the Capitol. (When Bill Clinton delivered his seventh-year State of the Union address in 1999, for example, nine reporters constituted the Indiana press corps in Washington. Now, there is just one.)

Despite all that, as many lawmakers as ever are getting ready to endure a couple of hours marooned under the House chamber’s hot TV lights and then the crush in Statuary Hall’s “spin city.” About 750 seats will be available on the floor for diplomats, Supreme Court justices, top military commanders, Cabinet officials and members, and it’s a good bet none will stay empty.

At a minimum, there’s nothing better for a member to do on State of the Union night, one of the few fundraiser-free evenings of the year. It’s a rare opportunity for even the most obscure backbencher to be glimpsed live on 13 television networks simultaneously — an ego bump even for those aware the audience is likely to slip below last year’s 33.3 million, the smallest number since Clinton’s final address in 2000.

More consequentially, it’s a way to be seen doing your job by the voters tuning in back home. (Such exposure is especially coveted by big-city House members, who generally get little love from their local TV stations. That’s why Republicans such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami and Democrats such as Eliot L. Engel of the Bronx always stake out seats on the center aisle many hours before the president walks down that path.)

The State of the Union, like the opening of a new Congress or a presidential inaugural, is one of the Capitol’s few full-dress ceremonial occasions — meaning it’s one of the few times when camaraderie between Democrats and Republicans seems unforced. The pageantry fuels a willing suspension of disbelief, if only for a few hours, in which everyone ignores the reality that “bipartisan, commonsense solutions to our nation’s problems” are proving almost impossible to find. And, even when half the audience rises like a singular automaton for a standing ovation, while everyone on the other side stares stone-faced into the middle distance, both sides appreciate a shared chuckle about the theatrics of it all.

Finally, for Obama’s Republican tormenters, there doesn’t seem to be much percentage in staying away as an act of protest. Rumblings after the elections about the new GOP majority disinviting Obama from giving the speech were quickly put down by Speaker John A. Boehner. And conservative radio host Mark Levin (who also sought to foment Boehner’s ouster) got nowhere with calls for Republicans to refuse to attend. The last member who announced a boycott, Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn, earned as much national praise as criticism for his move in 2012 and has been in the audience ever since.

The benefits, in other words, still outweigh the potential pointlessness — even for those who have been there and done that many times before. Full attendance is predictable from the 75 members of the 114th Congress who have arrived since Obama’s last speech. But CQ Roll Call’s inquiries to half a dozen members from each party who have been in office at least 20 years turned up no one who planned to miss Tuesday night.

“Out of respect for the office of the presidency and the people I represent, I attend the State of the Union every year,” said arch-conservative Republican Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, who’s just starting his fourth decade in the House. “It is part of this nation’s great history and I think it is important to respect that.”


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