Reform proposal: Bipartisan seating at the State of the Union address

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Americans say they’re tired of the partisanship and bickering in Washington, and political leaders are always promising– though never seeming to deliver– a new level of discourse with each new White House administration or party majority in Congress.

But when it comes to bridging partisan divisions, what if we could make major strides by just taking baby steps? What if we started small and made little changes that send a big message? What if we made members of the two major parties in Congress sit together during the president’s State of the Union, instead of segregated by party line?

The visceral tribalism of the “us vs. them” mentality is only reinforced by the seating arrangement in Congress. Before the two sides start listening to each other, it might help to be close enough to hear each other without shouting. Would Rep. Joe Wilson have been so emboldened to speak out of turn as he infamously did if he were sitting right next to colleagues of the opposite party, instead of safely insulated within his own group of Republican House members?

It seems like a simple enough idea. When I first heard it, I was amazed that no one had thought of it before. That it seems so obvious yet hasn’t been suggested more seriously up until now shows just how deeply entrenched the partisan divide has become in our thinking. But a non-profit advocacy group for political reform called No Labels is pushing the bipartisan seating idea ahead of this year’s State of the Union address:

“It’s time to curb the cliques in Congress. At all joint meetings or sessions of Congress, each member should be seated next to at least one member of the other party. On committees and subcommittees, seating also would be arranged in an alternating bipartisan way (one member would be seated next to at least one member of the other party) by agreement between the chair and ranking member. One option would be to arrange bipartisan seating in order of seniority.”

According to No Labels, it was good for our country when members of Congress voluntarily sat together at last year’s State of the Union to honor Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). They think this should be a regular practice and that Congress should always operate this way, not just in the face of a terrible tragedy. Joining them are several House and Senate members, with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) saying:

“When we sit together as Americans rather than as partisans we can begin sending the message that we are willing to stand up for the powerful principle of putting progress before partisanship.”

And Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) saying:

“There are many ways members of Congress can work to put partisanship aside. While sitting together seems like a small thing, it is a step we can take to show that there is more that unites us as Americans than divides us.”

The group is also taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times to promote their idea, which can be viewed in PDF form here. For a list of which members of Congress are on board with the bipartisan seating plan, which are undecided, and which are opposed (along with their telephone numbers so you can politely voice your thoughts on the plan), check out No Labelspage on their bipartisan seating idea here.