A State of the Union recommendation: Mix up the seating

Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 8:50 PM

THE STATE OF THE UNION address has too often degenerated to the level of "political pep rally," as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. put it last year. Members of the president's party applaud on cue; members of the opposition sit stolidly except when silence is too embarrassing.

This year's address, set for later this month, occurs in a changed Washington. Divided government has returned with Republican control of the House. The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) has sparked a debate about the implications of extreme political rhetoric. In a letter this week to congressional leaders, the centrist Democratic group Third Way offered a modest but useful proposal: End the traditional partisan seating at the State of the Union, with Republicans on one side of the chamber and Democrats on the other. "The spectacle of one side of the room leaping to its feet while the other sits glumly on its hands is just that - a spectacle," wrote Third Way president Jonathan Cowan. "Perhaps having both parties sit together, intermingled, would help control the choreography of partisanship that accompanies the President's remarks. Most importantly, it would demonstrate what is true but not always apparent - that we are one nation, not two, and that Members are unified by their service to our country."

This would be a gesture, but gestures matter. Partisanship has a place and a purpose, yet the State of the Union address ought to be a moment that transcends such instincts. Merely rejiggering the congressional seating chart will not end the reflexive partisanship of modern politics. But it could not hurt to have lawmakers intermingled instead of sitting with - and being egged on by - their teams. Ms. Giffords has been a voice for bipartisanship in Congress. Mixed seating at the State of the Union would be a fitting tribute to a member who will, sadly, not be in attendance.

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