Next week, Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver the State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress. What’s up with this? There seems to be some confusion about this speech, and its history.

For example, during the mid-90s, after the Republicans had secured control of Congress, many Democrats were convinced that Bill Clinton was the wisest soul in Washington, DC. Some of them came up with the bright idea to emulate Prime Minister’s Question Time (which is on C-Span in truncated form almost every Sunday night). The idea of this is that members of the Prime Minister’s party alternate with members of the opposition party in asking questions to the PM. It’s actually a pretty interesting way to expose the PM’s alacrity (or lack of same). The clamor for Clinton engaging like this pretty much died down in 1997, when the Lewinsky uproar began.

Unfortunately, Question Time is not analogous to the President regularly meeting with Congress for the simple reason that the PM is a member of the legislative branch in Great Britain while the President is a member of the executive branch here. So, a better analogy is the Monarch’s message to Parliament, which is delivered annually. This is actually the model for the State of the Union Address, and is installed in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution: “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

The State of the Union Address by the President must be delivered to a Joint Session of Congress. It may be given either in writing or in person. George Washington, I believe, delivered his in person, the presidents after him for more than a century merely submitted a written statement. Beginning with Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, the addresses generally have been provided as a speech.

Because of separation of powers, for a President to address Congress in person, there is a protocol involved. The House must first invite him to appear before the Joint session, the President agrees, and then the House, the Senate, and the President agree on a date and time. Typically, the speech is delivered during the last week in January. Until FDR, the speech was called the President’s annual message to Congress; he retitled it the State of the Union Address.

Although incoming presidents deliver a speech, this is not a State of the Union speech, since the premise is that the president who had responsibility during the previous year has the responsibility for the address. Usually, the outgoing President just submits something in writing which is put into the Congressional Record, since nobody much wants to hear him talk any way. Then, the new President speaks about his policy intentions for the next year.

One of my favorite things about the speech is also one of the least known and apparently is going to change this year. Since the speech is delivered in the House, all of its members take a seat. Then, the senators come in and take a seat. Then other dignitaries, including Cabinet members (except for the designated survivor), the Joint Chiefs, and the members of the Supreme Court enter. Finally, the President enters amidst flourishes and handshakes. Anyway, House members can sit wherever they want; traditionally, Democrats are on one side and Republicans on the other. Well, typically, the more moderate members of both parties sit nearest the other party, and Republicans who are more conservative sit at the end of their side; Democrats who are more liberal sit at the end of theirs. As we know, this is expected to stop this year, with some type of alternating arrangement between Democrats and Republicans. I think an interesting seating chart might be to place Joe (You Lie) Wilson next to Maxine (Who Me) Waters. But that’s just me.