How does seating at the State of the Union speech work?

For the most part, seating at the State of the Union is first come first serve, so even members of Congress must camp out for prime seating

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his first State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 27, 2010.

At that pregnant moment just prior to a State of the Union speech, US presidents must gaze out on the audience before them in the House of Representatives and think, how did those people get their seats?

OK, maybe they don’t think that. But we did, so we looked into it. It turns out that seating at the State of the Union is by general admission, for the most part.

Traditionally, the State of the Union is delivered in the House chamber, which is bigger than the Senate’s. Senate leaders get a roped-off section down front, as do US Supreme Court justices and some other groups, such as diplomats.

How much do you know about the State of the Union speeches? A quiz.

But House members aren’t so privileged. The leadership gets reserved seats, but places for the rank and file are not assigned. (That’s true for daily sessions, by the way, as well as special ceremonies.) So anytime during the day of a State of the Union address, any representative may claim any chair for the coming evening festivities.

There’s a catch, though. “They must remain physically in the seat to retain their place for the speech,” notes a Congressional Research Service report on the tradition of SOTUs.

So it’s like camping out on the Capitol lawn to get a good spot for the July 4 concert by the National Symphony, apparently. If a member wants to make sure of a seat by the aisle so it’ll be easier to shake the president’s hand, he or she can show up early, carrying snacks and magazines, and settle in.

Of course, a few lawmakers are designated to stay away.It’s long been a tradition that one cabinet officer misses the SOTU. Since Sept. 11, 2001, congressional leaders have also picked two lawmakers from each chamber of Congress, representing both parties, to stay home and watch the speech on television. Just in case.

How much do you know about the State of the Union speeches? A quiz.

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