The President will deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and there will be oil tankers’ worth of ink spilled over how strange it is to have a President addressing a Congress in which one house has impeached him, and the other is undoubtedly about to acquit him. But they’re missing a much more important point.
The President isn’t actually required to give a speech to Congress — merely to “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”, in the words of Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution.
And for all the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the State of the Union address, it’s supposed to be a job report. The Founders didn’t get everything right, but they did leave us with a tenable arrangement of power among the three branches of government. The President wasn’t supposed to be a Prime Minister. The President was named the chief executive of government, and in that role was intended to do the work that it’s simply too logistically complex to expect a Congress composed of hundreds of members to do.
We often say that there are three “co-equal” branches of government, but really there is a first among equals. And though in the public mind, the “first” is probably the Executive Branch, the system is clearly designed to place the Legislative Branch — Congress — in the first spot. It’s literally the first named in the Constitution, but it’s also clearly the one from which the other two derive their legitimacy. The people of the United States — and the States themselves — are what decides the makeup of Congress. Their participation in Congress, and their decisions to make and adhere to laws, is what forms a country in the first place. If you’re a native-born American who holds a passport, note that your “place of birth” isn’t just the U.S.A., but the state in which you were born. To this day, we’re still citizens of our states first, and citizens of the United States equally…but second.
So whatever you think of who’s in office today, or what you thought of the previous occupants — or even who might occupy it next — it’s our job as Americans to remember that we aren’t subjects, we’re responsible citizens. Responsible for the government we send to Washington. Responsible not just for deciding the person who sits in the Oval Office, but for the Congress we send to give that President his or her marching orders. There are several reforms that could make Congress much better than it is today, but ultimately, we’re fools if we generically hate on Congress without expecting them to act like they’re the first branch. The President’s State of the Union is a job report. Impeachment is a tool for removing a President who does wrong.
I don’t know about you, but when I look at two job roles, and “A” has the power to demand a report from “B”, and “A” has the power to fire “B”, but “B” doesn’t have either of those powers over “A”, then it’s pretty clear to me which one is supposed to be the boss. So when the President goes to visit the Capitol on Tuesday — where, by the way, he doesn’t have an office, either — let’s not forget that the spotlight may be on the President, but it’s Congress that’s supposed to be in the first chair.
As voters, we should act like it. And we should demand that Congress acts like it, too. A Congress that takes orders from the White House, that shies away from investigating anything of concern to the American people, or that punts on setting the laws and defers to Executive Orders or the administrative state instead? That’s no Congress worthy of the name.