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State of the ... Inauguration

A better idea

January 2005

We can save ourselves some trouble and expense every 4 years, by doing the inauguration of the President within the Capitol.
The 20th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1933, requires that a newly elected President take the oath of office on January 20 following the presidential election. (If 1/20 falls on a Sunday, the President still takes his oath – in his office – on that date, and a public ceremony follows on Monday.)  But the Constitution doesn't require that the U.S. capital be practically shut down while we engage in the current security and traffic nightmare known as The Inauguration of the President. $100 million or more in public funds were expended today to secure the capital city, to allow the President his open-air Photo-Op.

Now the Constitution (Article II, Section 3) also requires that "The President shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union ...". Since Woodrow Wilson reinstituted ancient practice in 1913 this annual "information" has been presented in person as a speech by the President to the Congress in joint session in the House of Representatives chamber. (Washington and Adams also gave an annual speech in person, but Jefferson discontinued the practice, preferring to send a written report to the Congress, since he felt a speech gave too much attention and ceremony to the Presidency. Needless to say, politicians in the TV age can't get enough of attention and ceremony.)  Exactly when to give the SOTU address is up to the President, but the recent custom has been to give the speech in the latter part of January.

Well, don't these two requirements for a presidential speech to the nation in late January suggest the possibility of a happy marriage? A lot of money would be saved, not to mention the reduced traffic headaches, by moving the Inauguration inside the House, and holding it before the assembled Congress immediately preceding the President's SOTU speech. That would, in other words, place the SOTU address on January 20 (or the Monday following) as a regular date, at least in presidential election years.

The benefits of this plan are obvious: Greater security for the President; huge dollar savings in security outlays; savings to the media who only need to cover one boring speech; the same advantage for the TV audience; VIPs not having to sit outside in the late January frost (there have been many days of work lost in Washington from illness caught on Inauguration Day  –  not to mention the case of President Wm. Harrison, who died a month after being inaugurated, of pneumonia apparently resulting from his exposure to the freezing drizzle); and, not least, getting the celebratory hoopla over with in one fell swoop and getting on with the nation's business.

Objections will of course be raised by those who gain from the current model: Protesters, souvenir sellers and producers, high school bands and other selected citizens – mainly political donors – who attend, VIPs on the inauguration platform who get exposure, and above all the President himself, who will be reluctant to give up air time. To the objection of protesters and souvenir hawkers I have nothing to say other than "Suck it up for the good of the nation."  To the vanishingly small fraction of the citizenry who have a chance to attend the Inauguration, "Most of us have no chance to attend, and it doesn't serve our democracy that you can and we can't."  To the VIPs who are counting on a benefit from face time on the platform, a cold shower of realism: "Behind the winner, the new President, you all look like losers. You gain nothing from looking like you play second or third fiddle."  To the President's objection, which he will have the decency to recast as a claim of a benefit to the nation of seeing him in person, "Trust us – hearing one presidential speech is actually an improvement over hearing two. We appreciate a lot more knowing that you're in the office taking care of business."

Some "wet blanket" will tell me that much of the time we inaugurate a new president, and we can't get away with one ceremony, since they will both want their own. Hogwash, one ceremony will do: the outgoing prez gives his SOTU speech, then the new guy follows with his inauguration chat. It's a nice symbol of continuity.

So that's clear, then. As a small but significant improvement in the way we govern, we move the Inauguration into the halls of Congress and combine it with the State of the Union address. Congress could effectuate this by law, or by joint resolution and a presidential order. If you agree, write your Representative and your local newspaper.

© 2005 H. Paul Lillebo

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