State of the Union — a better way?

State of the Union — a better way?
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Another year, another State of the Union address. As with the previous ones, this one will be an extravaganza, full of pomp and ceremony more typical of a monarchy than a democratic republic. And while Americans enjoy the occasional orgy of pomp and ceremony, this level of partisan excess is more appropriate to a Super Bowl than a Constitutionally mandated information briefing. 

The level of excess was raised to another level this year by the entanglement of the speech with the ongoing and increasingly poisonous immigration debate. The President wanted a forum to speak to his supporters during the shutdown; the Speaker wasn’t about to give it to him.


Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution requires the President to periodically “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.”


This is equivalent to the old Washington adage that “the President proposes, but Congress disposes.” Nowhere does the Constitution call for a partisan circus, in which the President makes his monarchical progress down the aisle, friendly Congressman leap to their feet to applaud every proposal, while the opposition sits, arms folded, scowling disapproval.

We can do better than this.

I propose instead that we initiate a variation on Question Time, as practiced in the United Kingdom and other parliamentary democracies.

In place of the SOTU, the President would periodically — say, quarterly — present him or herself to Congress, and engage in a give and take with senators and congressman. As is the case with Question Time, questions would be a mix of previously prepared and supplementary, with the latter arising from answers given to the prepared questions. Both sides would be afforded the same number of questions, and decorum would be maintained by the Vice President or Speaker, depending upon whether it is the Senate or the House’s nominal turn to host the President.

While this proposal is consistent with the wording of Article II, some question may be raised as to whether it violates separation of powers. Section 3 implies that the information transfer is one-way, and Presidents in the past, citing separation of powers, have declined opportunities to testify before Congressional committees. The courts would determine the answer to this question, but an amendment to the Constitution may be required.

Why do this? Don’t press conferences and briefings serve the same purpose? In a word, no.

If a President doesn’t want a press conference, he won’t hold one. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrumps light 97th annual National Christmas Tree Trump to hold campaign rally in Michigan 'Don't mess with Mama': Pelosi's daughter tweets support following press conference comments MORE had only one official solo press conference during his first year in office. As to the press briefings, they have degraded into schoolyard brawls, with many in the press looking more to burnish their confrontational street cred than to elicit worthwhile information. While politicians are supposed to be partisan — it’s their job — the press is supposed to be concerned with getting out the truth. The public unfortunately no longer believes that. Increasingly the press, both right and left, is regarded as being more committed to advocacy than truth.  And this is corrosive to public trust.

Congress freely admits its partisanship and advocacy. Require the President to regularly defend his or her policies before such a partisan group.

Let Congress aggressively question the administration’s policies, and let the President defend them. The press still has its major role to play.

Question Time in the UK has not diminished the press’s importance in serving the public. But having the branches of government publicly debate their policies, one coequal branch versus the other, cannot be dismissed as fake news. 

L. Stephen Bowers is retired having served 10 years as Professor of Management and Executive in Residence at Ursinus College, Collegeville, Pa. He has two engineering degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard. He was previously an executive at a number of technology-based firms.