On Tuesday President Obama reported on the State of the Union to a joint session of Congress and to the American people. It was his fifth since being elected (traditionally the first speech given by a president, when it occurs, is an “annual message” rather than the “State of the Union” since they just took office days before the speech, so this is his sixth such speech). Following his speech, the Republican Party offered their rebuttal to the president. Why is this necessary? Why does the party not holding the presidency always have to have “equal time” to present their political viewpoint when the president’s speech is fulfilling an official obligation of the office?
Article II, section 3 of the United States Constitution states that “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.” (Of course the founding fathers could never imagine that the president might one day be a woman, since women did not get the right to vote until 1920, thus the “he” reference concerning the president.)
The Constitution does not say anything about the party or parties not in power having the obligation, or even the right, to follow what is a Constitutionally proscribed event with a requirement of their own. This has been ongoing for years, for both Democrats and Republicans, and has been a staple of televised State of the Union addresses since 1966. But why does it have to continue?
Indeed, the president does not even have to make a speech to a joint session of Congress to deliver his message. As many of you may know, George Washington did so, but starting with Thomas Jefferson, most presidents sent an annual letter to meet the requirement. Woodrow Wilson revived the custom of actually speaking before a joint session, and it was solidified under Franklin Roosevelt in its current form.
My question remains, however, as to why the “other” party must be given air time on national television to give a scripted rebuttal to a speech that they do not directly address, as the rebuttal is written prior to the original speech being delivered.
This year there was not even a unified rebuttal. The “official” Republican response was delivered nearly immediately after President Obama finished by Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) in English. A nearly identical “official” speech was given by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FLA) in Spanish. (I am sure that the choices were merely a coincidence and had nothing to do with the perception that the Republicans have lost voters among women and Hispanics in recent years.) Additional “rebuttals” were given by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT). Senator Paul’s speech was “his own” (and pre-recorded) — coincidentally he will undoubtedly run for president in 2016 — and Senator Lee’s response was the “official” Tea Party position.
It all makes for great political theater and provides employment for the various analysts and strategists employed by the networks, media outlets and political campaigns. So in that way, I guess that makes them all “job creators.”
I just wish that all that “speechifying” was useful. Can’t they actually talk to each other?