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State of the State of the Union: Experts see erosion of decorum in Trump-Pelosi feud

January 24, 2019

President Donald Trump announced Wednesday he would postpone his State of the Union address until the end of the partial government shutdown, yielding to a request by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi had denied Trump access to the House chamber to deliver the address to a joint session of Congress, expressing it as a security concern, a claim U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, found dubious.

“If the Secret Service, Capitol Police and the Department of Homeland Security have no issues with securing the event – the primary concern voiced by Speaker Pelosi – then the congresswoman sees no reason why the State of the Union Address should not proceed as originally planned,” McMorris Rodgers spokesman Jared Powell said.

Blaine Garvin, a Gonzaga University political sciences professor, said that this postponement was unusual, but he noted the president has never been able to enter the Congress without permission, a rule rooted in the Black Rod tradition in the United Kingdom. There, when the queen or king of England wishes to address the House of Commons, the official known as the Black Rod bangs on the door, and he is refused entry. He bangs on the door a second time, again refused entry. After banging a third time, they let him in and the monarch may give the speech.

“This stems from the time when the king and Parliament way back in the 17th century were very much at odds with each other,” Garvin said. “The idea in our system, like theirs, is that the legislature controls its own business and the president only comes by invitation.”

Though required by Article 2 of the Constitution, the State of the Union is by no means a static tradition. President Thomas Jefferson sent it to Congress in writing, and from then on it wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson requested to speak before Congress that it turned into its current form, Garvin said.

Though this present instance was atypical, partisanship with the State of the Union is to be expected, said Cornell Clayton, director of Washington State University’s Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service.

“You’ll see this when the president announces his plan for a particular policy or he takes credit for a particular policy that the opposition party doesn’t approve of, then they won’t clap,” Clayton said. “His partisans will clap and stand up, and the other partisans will sit on their hands, and that’s become increasingly more frequent over the last 30 to 40 years as a result of political polarization and prolonged periods of divided government.”

But Clayton said the escalation between Pelosi and Trump is particularly juvenile.

As a possible parallel, Garvin pointed to the feuding between then-President Bill Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, when the government was shut down because Clinton vetoed Congress’ proposed budget.

“There was a standoff, and what happened there, and will happen here eventually, is that they passed continuing resolutions instead of a full budget …” Garvin said. “They left it to the public to judge who was right in the affair. Clinton played that skillfully, he kept pounding away on Medicare and Medicaid, education and the environment. In that instance, it’s the reverse of now, the public blamed the Republican Congress, and that is part of what helped Clinton get re-elected in ’96.”

Clayton said what the public sees between Pelosi and Trump is cause for worry, because it signals the bigger problem: the erosion of decorum.

“It’s not just the State of the Union, you see the same thing with the filibuster in the Senate, the use of the ‘advise and consent’ power in the Senate,” Clayton said. “The fact that Mitch McConnell, for instance, wouldn’t even hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court for over a year.”

Clayton said democracy does not rely solely upon constitutional rules, but also rules of decorum and reciprocity. He also said it was important to put the erosion of these norms in the context of another that is being eroded: that even when parties disagree, they should not shut down the government over it.

“The fact that we now are in the longest shutdown in the history of our country, it shouldn’t surprise that we now see this petty, tit-for-tat violation of norms taking place,” Clayton said.