President Obama plays the starring role during tonight’s health care speech before a Joint Session of Congress.
And hundreds of Members of Congress portray the extras. The wallpaper. The passersby. The walk-ons.
That is, unless you work to make sure you you’re caught on camera in the House chamber.
Which is precisely what happens every time the President of the United States visits the Capitol for the State of the Union address or another major speech. It’s where you’ll find the nexus of three long-standing Congressional customs: The tradition of lawmakers showing up in the House chamber hours in advance and squatting on prime TV real estate spots on the center aisle. This is so they can shake the president’s hand and be assured they’ll grab some national face-time on TV as he enters the room. That ritual is met by the rule that no lawmaker is allowed to place signs on the unassigned seats inside the chamber to reserve a space for the speech. Which then intersects with the custom of not enforcing the rule banning reserved seats.
Unlike the Senate, there are no assigned seats in the House chamber. And like at a rock concert where there’s “festival seating,” the most-enthusiastic lawmakers stake-out their positions early to get a good view of the president or be captured on camera.
Over the years, dozens of lawmakers have forged a reputation for grabbing aisle seats to shake the president’s hand during the State of the Union address, regardless of party. The best known seat holders are Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Jean Schmidt (R-OH) Eliot Engel (D-NY), Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL).
But lawmakers don’t only covet aisle seats. Some prefer to sit behind party leaders in the middle of the chamber. Again, an elite location to be captured by the TV cameras applauding, frowning or even looking studious as they follow the president’s remarks, their reading glasses slid down on their noses.
During the last series of votes, dozens of lawmakers positioned their business cards on key seats. Some even scribbled their names in pen on notebook paper and taped the names to the chairs.
Some on the aisle were the aforementioned Engel and Jackson along with Reps. Carolyn Cheeks Kirlpatrick (D-MI), Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Laura Richardson (D-CA). Lawmakers in the center of the room were Reps. Brad Ellsworth (D-IN), Michael Arcuri (D-NY) and David Scott (D-GA).
Still, others claimed dibs on other seats in more obscure places. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) posted a sign in the front row of the House, but off to the side. His sign read “Yarmuth, U of L,” a reference to the University of Louisville, which he represents.
The House chamber is divided into a Democratic and a Republican side. But since the Democrats hold more seats there won’t be as great a demand for aisle positions on the Republican side. Perhaps that’s why some inventive lawmakers “reserved” seats there. Those lawmakers included Reps. Al Green (D-TX), Joe Baca (D-CA) Yvette Clark (D-NY). Even a few Republicans, like John Sullivan (R-OK) claimed aisle seats.
Before the House recessed in mid-afternoon to prepare the chamber for Mr. Obama’s speech, Speaker Pro Tempore Mike Ross (D-AR) reminded lawmakers that “the practice of reserving
Seats prior to the Joint Session by placard will not be allowed. Members may reserve their seats only by physical presence following the security sweep of the chamber.”
At that, Rep. Ed Towns (D-NY) hollered from the House floor “I object.” Ross didn’t respond. Towns reserved a seat any way.
And House sources tell FOX, they won’t enforce the rule of no saving seats beforehand. Everyone gets to sit where they want. And mug for the camera with the President of the United States.