The Curse of the State of the Union Aisle Seat

It was supposed to be one of the best seats in the House. But getting herself an aisle spot at least year’s State of the Union may have cost Jean Schmidt her job.

Schmidt, a former Republican House member from Ohio, was taking part in a State of the Union tradition made for the age of television: staking out a perfect seat so the world can see you shaking the president’s hand. Or, in the case of Schmidt, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

Unfortunately for her, kissing Obama did not play well in her Republican primary last year, and was even used against her in ads (see on the left) to make her appear cozy with the Democratic president.

It’s one of the great ironies of lawmakers who fight for the aisle seat. They wait up to 12 hours (some try to put a book or a coat down, but this is technically against the rules) to get one of these choice seats, for some sort of personal glory, but the cost can be more than just the time spent protecting their spot.

“I’m always working on behalf of my constituents,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, when asked why she stakes out an aisle seat each year. “I am working on their behalf, and they are seeing me work on their behalf. Many of them are moved by the moment.”

While it’s true that having the seat does give Jackson Lee visibility, it’s a bit harder to argue that at this moment her constituents are seeing her work on their behalf.

And yet, this is a constant refrain from aisle-loving lawmakers. Former Rep. Dale Kildee, a Democrat from Michigan, may have held an aisle seat more than any other lawmaker. He said time and again that his constituents “love it.”

But there’s no real proof that it does them any good at the polls. Last year, Salon made a list of the six most egregious aisle hogs. Of those six, only two (Jackson Lee and Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York) remain in Congress. 

How exactly having an aisle seat plays with constituents is unknown. But one thing is certain: It doesn’t play particularly well with other members of Congress.

“I keep a busy schedule, I don’t have an extra eight hours to keep a seat warm,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia, noting that he often is one of the last Democrats to show up so he often sits in the Republican section.

This may be the most bipartisan message of the whole State of the Union, one that members on both sides of the aisle tend to agree with.

“I don’t have eight hours to waste,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., almost echoing his Democratic colleague. “If you are doing this job well, every minute should be spent going to briefings, researching, and figuring out how to move ahead.

“I’m not giving up eight hours of my time for a minute on national television,” he said.

Sure, there are some folks who don’t stake out the aisle seat but still understand the appeal. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., is another lawmaker who said he was far too busy to wait hours for a seat, though he had once lucked into one of the coveted spots.

“I was struck by the number of people back home who saw it,” he said.

At the end of the day, most lawmakers say that waiting for hours just to be seen on TV just isn’t their cup of tea.

“On my bucket list, getting one of those spots just isn’t on it,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “But you know, for the people who do this, it’s probably their 15 seconds of fame.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and mistated the number of Aisle Hogs still in Congress.