The Corner

Politics & Policy

SOTU: The Zero Option

I have to agree with my colleagues who decry the damage done to the State of the Union address by the odd couple of Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan. Like them, I look back wistfully to the days, over a century ago, when SOTU was a long, dreary, written laundry list that was sent to Congress, read aloud by the House clerk, and then promptly forgotten. That’s a practice that should definitely be revived.

But isn’t it time to go one step further and dispense entirely with the whole routine? People say that SOTU is a constitutional requirement, but that’s not really true. Here’s what the Constitution says, in Article II, Section 3:

[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.

You can see why the Framers put that in: With 18th-century means of communication and transportation, the typical member of Congress had little knowledge of conditions outside his district, or of what the central government was doing and what it needed — particularly after the nine-month layoff following a March adjournment. The president’s annual message filled Congress in on these matters and also provided a detailed accounting and summary of how much the executive branch’s departments had spent and what they had done over the past year.

None of that is necessary today. Any member of Congress (or ordinary citizen, for that matter) can get loads of detail on these things from the Internet, and if that isn’t enough, federal agencies send information about their doings to Congress all the time. As for recommending measures for passage, what president since at least FDR has ever been shy about doing that, at whenever time he felt was the right political moment? Ideally, our next president would say, “I will comply with Article II, Section 3, the way all of my recent predecessors have, by releasing data, delivering speeches, meeting and communicating with members of Congress, and appealing for legislation when I think it’s necessary. There will be no need for an annual event to cover something I and my subordinates do routinely every day.”

(Well, okay, a tradition is a tradition, and as conservatives, we should stick with such things if they’re harmless, as the modern SOTU-palooza surely is, however vulgar it may have become. But can we at least switch to once every two years, when a new Congress assembles, instead of every year? Since the adoption of air conditioning, there has been barely any gap between the end of a Congress’s first session and the start of the second, so there is really no need for the president to get everyone back up to speed in January.)

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