the waiting game

Members of Congress Camp Out All Day for a Chance to Meet the President

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Congressional pages after delivering the annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington on January 25, 2011. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
“I really wish you guys would have gotten some work done today.” Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/2011 AFP

Having the president greet dozens of lawmakers as he enters and exits the House chamber for the State of the Union already seems like a huge waste of time, and the situation is even worse than it appears. To secure an aisle seat, members of Congress have to claim the spot ten to twelve hours in advance. According to the Washington Post, there’s a devoted group of State of the Union squatters, and scoring five seconds of inane conversation with the president involves a surprising amount of preparation.

Competition for aisle seats is fierce, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy sent out a note on Monday reminding members of Congress that simply leaving your jacket on a chair doesn’t count. “Members may reserve their seats only by physical presence,” he said. Apparently there’s no rule about whose physical presence is required. According to a Daily News report on Bronx Rep. Eliot Engel, who has managed to score an aisle seat for every State of the Union since 1989, “He can leave for the bathroom, lunch, even for brief meetings near the chamber. A colleague will keep an eye on the spot.” So he can get some work done, but some staffer is still spending the day playing Words With Friends.

The whole interaction is so quick that members of Congress also have to make sure that they’ve prepared a concise comment. (Sample lines: “Don’t forget us in North Carolina!” and “Stand by Israel, now.”) However, passing these profound messages to the president isn’t really the point. Some lawmakers are convinced that the move will impress their constituents. “I will be in my district somewhere in December and someone will say to me, ‘I saw you on TV,’” Engel says. “I’ll think it was one of the many interviews I’ve done, but they’ll say ‘No. You were shaking the President’s hand.’ People remember me shaking the President’s hand.” If the ability to sit around and wait for hours on end is a quality you look for in your legislators, Obama’s entrance on Tuesday definitely isn’t the time to head to the kitchen for a snack.

Lawmakers Camp Out for Chance to Meet President