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Lingamfelter: The State of the Union Sideshow

By Scott Lingamfelter

Imagine for a moment an American President actually reporting to us each year on the true nature of our union. Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution requires the President to report to Congress from “time to time” with “information” on the nation and “recommend” to them “such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

For the first 125 years of our republic, this was done by written communication. However, in 1913 President Woodrow Wilson delivered his report to Congress pro se, that is in person, in order to emphasize and build support for his governing agenda. Subsequent Presidents have also, but since the advent of electronic mass media, the address has become more of a spectacle than an act of accountability.

Set in the glamour of a joint session with cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, military dignitaries, the President’s spouse, and a host of special guests in the House gallery, the President has a platform to directly engage the Congress and the nation on his plans for the coming year. But today’s address more resembles a campaign rally than a useful accountability report to Congress and the nation.

Recent addresses have been filled with political drama. Presidents now spend more time boasting about their administration than offering any genuine communication on “information” and “measures” that are “expedient” to the American people. The address has become a litany of bromides bereft of specifics and frequently occasions for political antics more akin to a high school homecoming pep-rally or a television game show.

It is time to reform the State of the Union address. Consider an amendment like this to the U.S. Constitution.

Section 1: The President shall, at noon on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of each year, deliver in writing and pro se a State of the Union report to a joint session of Congress in the chamber of the House of Representatives pursuant to Article II, Section 3 of this Constitution. The President shall report on the specific adequacies and inadequacies of those primary functions of national government that are most expedient for the People of the United States pursuant to the Preamble of this Constitution, including matters of domestic and foreign policy germane to the proper conduct of the Federal government and pursuant to the national interests, including the efficacy of policies, procedures, and programs, deserving the immediate attention of the Congress to strengthen and enhance the exigencies of the Union consistent with this Constitution.

Section 2: The President shall to the fullest extent possible, coincide his report to the submission of his budget recommendations to the Congress for its consideration and present his findings in a manner that acknowledges the necessity for national unity and mutual cooperation between the Congress and the President on behalf of the best interests of the people of the nation.

This proposal accomplishes much-needed improvements.

First, it fixes a specific day for a State of the Union report to Congress coinciding with the President’s submission of a budget recommendation to Congress. That requirement, first established in the Budget Act of 1921, occurs on the first Monday in February. The President’s address would be delivered the first Tuesday following that first Monday. By requiring that the President deliver his or her State of the Union at the same time the budget blueprint is provided to Congress, the President can be expected to shape the report fully mindful of the administration’s budget recommendations. Currently it’s not a given that the budget submission and the State of the Union report have a nexus, since the address generally occurs in the winter, but often prior to the President’s provision of a budget document. This amendment would require that they be coincidental.

Second, like the inauguration, the presentation would occur at noon. In doing so, this will reduce the theatrics surrounding a primetime network presentation and add more dignity and utility to the event.

Third, this proposal creates the expectation that the President will report specifically on the “adequacies and inadequacies” that concern the nation, including both domestic and foreign policy issues related to the “proper conduct” of our Federal government and our national interests “consistent” with the Constitution. That would be a much-needed accountability that links Presidential goals to the requirements of the Constitution. It also establishes a framework for the President to address “policies, procedures, and programs, deserving the immediate attention of the Congress” that should “strengthen and enhance” the nation, and thereby influence the legislative agenda.

Fourth, this approach establishes an expectation that the President will shape the address around what unites, not divides us as a nation, thereby summoning a spirit of cooperation.

Imagine a State of the Union that unifies, informs, and provides accountability tied to requirements in the Constitution. Imagine this, as opposed to a political sideshow.

Scott Lingamfelter is a graduate of VMI and the University of Virginia Law School, a retired U.S. Army Colonel after 28 years of service, and a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 2002-18.