It’s a common scene during the State of the Union address. One side of Congress stands and claps, the other side sits in silence. Meanwhile, the citizens shake their heads at the spectacle of the gaping chasm separating the two parties in Congress.
But this seating chasm happens more often than once a year, it consumes much of our political life. Any time there is a joint meeting of the Congress, any day that the either the House or the Senate is in session, every committee hearing – Republicans sit on one side, Democrats the other.
Partisan seating has been a fixture in Congress since 1877, when legislators in the Old Senate Chamber began to move desks across the center aisle with each new election to ensure party members could sit together. Since then, from the moment America’s elected officials walk into a room, they have been pitted against one another by the mere fact of where they sit.
But in today’s hyper-partisan climate, this outdated seating tradition sends precisely the wrong signal. As our economy continues to struggle and hyper-partisan gridlock dominates the rhetoric in Washington, our leaders must set a better example to show they are physically able to find the common ground America so desperately needs.
That’s why No Labels proposes Congress make a simple change and abandon partisan seating.
There is a precedent for such a change. In a letter to Congress that was inspired and dreamed up at last year’s No Labels kickoff in New York, my organization, Third Way, called on Congress to mix up the seating during the State of the Union. It was picked up by Sens. Mark Udall (D-CO) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) who led an effort to show a united front during the State of the Union Address and sit with members of the opposing party. This came in the aftermath of the tragic shooting that seriously wounded Rep. Gabriel Giffords (D-AZ) and killed six other people – a shooting that reminded us that words and actions have power. Within weeks, the entire Congress had joined in to break a centuries-old tradition and sit together during the President’s address to the
But appeals to the better angels of our nature should not be a once-off occurrence. Partisan seating should not be a practice reserved for special occasions, it should be weaved into the very fabric of congressional life.
According to a CNN poll taken after last year’s address, 72 percent of Americans said “Democrats and Republicans should sit together during the president’s annual address.”
It’s time for Washington to listen to voters and send a signal that elected officials are willing to sit together, work together, and stand together for the good of the country – not just one day a year, but every working day in Congress.
Today, Congress has a 9 percent approval rating. It is the worst rating that Congress has received in decades of public opinion polling. Something needs to change. Perhaps when people sit together they'll begin to work together. And when they work together, maybe the nation will succeed together. We shouldn't be afraid to talk to each other. It would be just a few small steps for members of Congress, but a great step for the country.
What do you think? Please leave a comment below and join the conversation about No Labels' proposed congressional rules reforms.
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