Monday, January 25, 2010

State of the Union Addresses Should be Discontinued

Under Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, the President is required to report to Congress on the "state of the union" from time to time. This has evolved into a tradition of a grand speech by the President at the beginning of the year, in which the chief executive lays out his legislative agenda and highlights the achievements of his administration and the challenges facing the country. It is usually aired live by all major networks and cable news stations, becoming a grand media event.

It hasn't always been this way. George Washington and John Adams gave speeches to Congress, but Thomas Jefferson refused to do so, sending only written messages instead. This may have simply been due to shyness and the fact that Jefferson was a very poor public speaker. But Jefferson also believed that the State of the Union address had the appearence of a monarchial ceremony, similar to the Speech from the Throne that the British sovereign gave at the opening of every Parliament.

The country would be well-advised to go back to Jefferson's style of having the President merely send a written message and not elevating the State of the Union address into a public spectacle. After all, one of the most disturbing trends in American history over the last several decades has been the emergence of executive supremacy, and the steady rising of the office of President of the United States into an institution increasingly appearing to be a monarch. An elected monarch, to be sure, but still a monarch.

In Jefferson's mind, the President of the United States was merely the chief officer of the executive branch of the federal government. Nothing more, nothing less. While more powerful and possessing greater responsibilities, the President is no more worthy of elaborate ceremonial trappings than any local mailman. If Jefferson could see the elevation of the State of the Union address in the public spectacle it has become, he would be a bit disappointed in us.

The gradual elevation of the President of the United States into a de facto monarch is one of the most distressing trends in American history. Believing that the people of the country are the sovereign power, the simple fact of the matter is that Congress, and not the President, is supposed to be the supreme organ of the federal government, as it has the closest contact with the people themselves. Every American knows the name of the President, but shockingly few know the name of any of their representatives in Congress.

In an ideal Jeffersonian republic, the President should send a written State of the Union message to Congress, which would be reprinted in the newspapers and read with interest by all citizens. But the public addresses the people would really pay attention to would be those of their own congressional representative at town hall meetings.

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