Taking a stand, taking a seat

TAKING A STAND, TAKING A SEAT…. If you’ve watched State of the Union addresses, you know what to expect from the floor of the House. For the most part, Democrats sit on their side of the aisle, while Republicans sit on the other.

But in the wake of the shootings in Tucson on Saturday, there’s a renewed interest in doing more to bridge at least some of the partisan divide. With the State of the Union address coming up on the 25th, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) suggested members break with tradition, abandon divided seating, and have Dems and the GOP intermix. “As the nation watches, Democrats and Republicans should reflect the interspersed character of America itself,” Udall wrote the other day.

As symbolic gestures go, this one sounds fine, and I certainly won’t complain if lawmakers go this route. But Dan Amira highlighted perhaps the only meaningful, substantive flaw in the idea.

Unity is great, sure, but apart from the entertainment value, there is an important practical reason to maintain the State of the Union’s partisan seating arrangement. A neat separation of the parties allows the American people to see, in real time, their positions on the president’s agenda and the issues of the day. It’s actually very informative and helpful to be able to easily assess which proposals the Republicans and Democrats support, respectively, through the decision to applaud. It also allows us to identify the few party-bucking independent thinkers who, every so often, stand up to clap while the rest of their colleagues remain seated.

Thrown together in one big bipartisan hodgepodge, congressmen and senators would still carefully regulate their applause, but that brief chamber reaction shot on TV becomes nearly impossible to decipher. The country could certainly benefit from more symbolic demonstrations of solidarity, but the State of the Union address is one instance where a stark partisan divide is actually good for democracy.

I don’t feel strongly about this, but I’m inclined to agree with Amira’s point. When Republicans, for example, stand in response to something President Obama says, that conveys something important to the public. Intersperse members, and the visual lessons disappear.

We’d be left, in effect, with cues from just two people — Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner, who’ll be seated behind the president, and who probably won’t be standing in unison.

Still, Udall’s idea seemed to be gathering some momentum yesterday, garnering endorsements from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Dem who also chairs the Democratic Policy Committee, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Congressional Republicans, by and large, haven’t said much, but they haven’t reflexively criticized the proposal, either. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called the seating concept “an interesting idea,” but one assumes the White House will leave this to Congress to figure out.

Expect a decision sometime next week.