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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Raucous State of the Union recalls bygone era of U.S. politics

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, and Republican members of Congress react as President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.   (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: The President of the United States is in charge of which branch of government?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday in some ways marked a new era of American politics, with the head of the government’s executive branch trading shouted jabs with congressional Republicans who recently seized the House majority. But to students of the nation’s political past, the raucous scene may look like history repeating itself.

“There have been times in our history where things have been very, very raucous, particularly in the time before the Civil War,” said Blaine Garvin, a professor of political science at Gonzaga University. “In the 20th century, rules of decorum set in.”

Decorum was scarce in the House chamber last week. Republicans booed and heckled Biden, who shouted retorts with a grin, seeming to relish the repartee. When the president accused some GOP lawmakers of wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare in exchange for voting to raise the nation’s debt limit – part of a proposal from Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. – Republicans roared in disapproval.

Biden shot back, “As we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?”

Cornell Clayton, a professor of government at Washington State University, said the scene in the House chamber should come as no surprise in light of the widening divide between the parties.

“It’s obviously out of the norm for recent States of the Union, especially through the 20th century, but I think it’s becoming a new norm,” he said. “There’s obviously deep animosity and polarization between the parties. They don’t like each other.”

Another factor, Clayton said, is the divide within the GOP between establishment figures and disruptive lawmakers on the party’s right-wing fringe.

“Part of it could have been this group of Republicans pushing back against (House Speaker Kevin) McCarthy,” he said. “Let’s face it – this is a group who really didn’t want to see him become speaker because they think he’s too establishment oriented, not vigorous enough in his pushing an ideological agenda.”

George Washington delivered the inaugural State of the Union to Congress in 1790. Subsequent presidents simply sent written updates to Congress, and it didn’t become an annual, in-person address until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson reinstated the practice. The 110-year tradition has coincided with a period of relative civility between the parties, Garvin said, that may be coming to an end.

“Republicans are newly in charge again in the House and they’re feeling their strength in that regard, but they’re also divided,” he said. “This raucous group on the far right, they’re a pain in the neck for the leadership as well. So I think you could you could look at what happened and it could be portrayed as an embarrassment to the president, but it’s also an embarrassment to the speaker.”

While the discord between the parties may not augur well for bipartisan legislating in the current Congress, Clayton said it may benefit Biden and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill. The 80-year-old president’s verbal sparring may also have been part of an effort to make him look energetic enough to run for a second term in office.

“I think he was well prepared for it,” Clayton said of the response from Republicans. “And I suspect that’s going to be the norm now, going forward for some time, at least until the level of political polarization fades away. And I suspect you can see more give and take from presidents during things like the State of the Union address.”