The biggest event in Washington this week was President Donald Trump's speech to Congress — the State of the Union address. As a former member of the Senate, I am entitled for the rest of my life to march into the House chamber and sit with the Senate during the speech. I have done that many times, but this year I found myself speaking in Minnesota, so I watched it on TV with some genuine local Vikings fans.
In some ways the whole event is a bit of an embarrassment because it is such a partisan clapping contest. The entire Republican side rises to one point and then the Democratic side rises to another. The side that disagrees sits with gloomy, stony faces. The Supreme Court justices pretty much sit while the president’s Cabinet is obligated to stand at every strong presidential statement.
The State of the Union address is a grand occasion in Washington, with dinners, teas and some parties preceding and following the speech. The entire diplomatic corps is squeezed into the right part of the House chamber. The Supreme Court sits center front. The president’s entire Cabinet and some of the joint chiefs also sit near the front. In recent years, many members of the Supreme Court have objected to attending because they are thrown into what is considered a partisan event. Four justices attended Tuesday night.
It is almost comical how much our State of the Union duplicates the queen's opening of the English Parliament. She and her attendants must knock on the Parliament's door and then get permission to enter the Commons. We are not a monarchy, but we yearn to be monarchial. It shows on this occasion where we treat the president almost as a monarch entering into Congress with the approval of the Escort Committee. The queen reads a speech prepared by the prime minister, which is the ruling party’s program. In our State of the Union, the president composes his own speech, and this represents his administration's policy.
President Trump made a great concession in offering the Dreamers a path to citizenship. This means Trump’s base will call it amnesty. However, he insisted on his wall.
I think the Democrats should give him the wall — it was his campaign pledge from day one and the American people elected him president of the United States. My take away from his speech is that he is willing to make a bipartisan compromise. The Democrats get the Dreamer program and immigration reform — many Republicans favor it, too. There must be a compromise. Some, including myself, think the wall will not be effective, but many top Homeland Security experts favor it. In any event, it is not very expensive in the big picture of a $1 trillion budget. So to break the logjam, let’s give it a try. At least it will be a big public works project that will stimulate the economy to an extent. The wall is something that has come to symbolize many of our fellow citizens’ thinking.
As one who has done real policymaking, I can attest that each side must give up certain ideas to legislate on a bipartisan basis. I led the effort to pass the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In the end, the omnibus bill (1,100 pages long) contained some things I opposed — but I voted for the underlying bill because I thought it would bring us the internet. It has succeeded spectacularly. I was criticized in my next re-election campaign for having made certain compromises.
Thus, I think Trump’s speech set the stage for a great national compromise. We will begin to build the wall, and we will give the Dreamers a path to citizenship. Both sides will have to swallow hard, but that is bipartisan compromise. If our nation can get immigration reform out of this, it will be a huge step forward.
Thus, the 2018 State of the Union address may have been a very historic, creative event in spite of its raucous appearance.
Sen. Larry Pressler was a U.S. senator for 18 years and congressman for four years. He is a Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law graduate, a Vietnam veteran and the author of "Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent."