Congress: Abandon Partisan Seating to Work Together

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But in today’s hyper-partisan climate, this outdated seating tradition sends precisely the wrong signal.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
nation.


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.


Click here for Monday's and Tuesday's proposals, and here for Wednesday's and Thursday's reform ideas.


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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Jim Kessler

Jim Kessler is the Senior Vice President for Policy and a co-founder of Third Way. He brings a wealth of knowledge and insight on economic and social issues across the policy spectrum. A longtime veteran on Capitol Hill and in campaigns, he served as Legislative and Policy Director to Representative/Senator Charles Schumer where he helped pass landmark legislation on crime, gun safety, and domestic violence. From 2001 to 2004 he served as Director of Policy and Research for Americans for Gun Safety. He has appeared frequently as a commentator on television, radio, on the web, and in newspapers—including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, 60 Minutes, MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, The Financial Times, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, ABC World News Tonight, The CBS Evening News, NPR’s Morning Edition, Bloomberg and Marketplace Radio. A prolific writer, his columns have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, POLITICO, Roll Call and DEMOCRACY: A Journal of Ideas. Mr. Kessler earned his Master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science at Boston University.

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