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Some thoughts on Speaker Pelosi’s move to postpone the #SOTU and invite President Trump to deliver a written message.

First, some background: George Washington set the precedent for an annual, in-person address to Congress—neither of which are required by the Constitution. Though continued by Adams, Jefferson switched to a written message, arguing that the spectacle was too monarchical.

For the rest of the 19th century and into the early 20th, the annual message was delivered in writing. As CRS documents in their report, these messages were (unsurprisingly) much longer than in-person addresses. And a quick look at them shows the policy detail they went into.

Here’s the CRS report: fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R…
And here’s the American Presidency Project’s list of all addresses, complete with links to full text: presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/pres…

It was Woodrow Wilson who reverted to the original practice of an in-person, oral address. After some back and forth between Harding and Hoover, FDR returned to and consolidated the in-person practice, which has been followed (with a few exceptions) since then.

20th century changes to the SOTU reflect virtually all the major changes in national politics: radio (1923), TV (1947), primetime (1965), partisan response (1966), social media (2010), etc. (Ryan Teten's article is illuminating here: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.111…)

Today, the SOTU is a distillation of the defining features of American politics: national in scope, polarized, and executive-centered. Offering the president an audience of 30-65 million, it’s unlikely to go away…unless Congress shakes things up.

So Pelosi’s invitation for Trump to submit a written address would be a return to older practice, but not a return to original practice. The important question, it seems to me, is not which is better but, how can *any practice* be politically meaningful?

Answering this requires determining what the purpose of the SOTU is. This is my take: SOTU is a means to provide Congress with an executive perspective on politics and policy...

Valuable lessons can be gained from the enforcement & administration of laws, and those lessons should inform future lawmaking. In this way, SOTU reflects the logic of the Constitution, which created different institutions to do different things in different ways.

Early congressional practice reflected this understanding, as Charles Zug and I argued in a piece @monkeycageblog last year. After the president delivered the annual message, each chamber of Congress would debate and prepare a formal reply, offering *their* perspective.

This ended, though, when Jefferson moved to a written address. Today’s “opposition response” is a pale shadow of the response Congress used to offer. But it doesn’t have to be this way! A good start would be to return to an *institutional* rather than a *partisan* response.

This would require taking the address seriously enough to respond formally. Just as the president uses the speech to offer his distinctive constitutional perspective, Congress could do the same through legislative debate and deliberation.

And here’s where the Speaker’s proposal offers an opportunity: A written SOTU would force the President to present concrete—and thus falsifiable and/or contestable—claims supporting his political vision. This, in turn, *could* supply a stable foundation for debate.

So that’s my ultimate takeaway: As is so often the case in constitutional politics, the value of the SOTU turns as much on any discrete action as on the response of rival institutions.

(Thanks to @williamadler78 for spurring these thoughts. Might be of interest to #PoliSciTwitter, #APDTwitter, and #twitterstorians, as well as @joshchafetz, @MattGlassman312, and @dandrezner.)
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