The State of the Union is the House GOP’s debut media bonanza
And the House Ethics committee officially opens the book on George Santos
Good afternoon, Press Pass readers. Tonight at 9 p.m. EST, President Joe Biden is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address. I’ll be in the House chamber while he speaks, sitting with all the other reporters about 20 feet above the president’s head. I’ll be posting updates about the things you won’t see on TV—follow along on Twitter: @JoePerticone.
The State of the Union doesn’t have to be a speech—it could be a letter, a report, a newspaper subscription, or anything else that satisfies the vague constitutional requirement of “giv[ing] to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” Most years, most presidents since Woodrow Wilson have delivered State of the Union addresses before joint sessions of Congress, and since the invention of the television, the annual speech has morphed into an event that is purely for political marketing. It’s about what’s going right for the president and his agenda, as well as an opportunity for the opposition party to insist that actually, everything is quite awful.
Four things that always happen at the SOTU:
The president delivers his speech in a primetime address with most members of Congress and the cabinet under one roof, save for a handful who don’t feel like attending as well as designated survivors from the cabinet and Congress. Leaders of the U.S. Armed Forces and justices of the Supreme Court customarily attend; the latter sometimes get kicked around a bit by the president.
The opposition party delivers a response immediately after (a practice that originated in the 1960s). This year the response will be delivered by the new governor of Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, best known to national audiences as Donald Trump’s former White House press secretary. More often than not, the SOTU response results in the party’s latest up-and-comer turning into a meme (think of Marco Rubio sipping the water or Joe Kennedy III drooling) or otherwise self-sabotaging (think of Bobby Jindal’s hilariously awkward delivery).
Lawmakers and other officials bring special guests in the House galleries as a nice gesture—to make a policy statement or, in some cases, demonstrate how committed they are to some ideology. (Matt Gaetz famously brought Chuck Johnson, a Holocaust denying alt-right troll to the 2018 State of the Union, then claimed he had “no idea” who he was after backlash ensued.) Some guests to look for tonight who will likely receive a presidential shoutout: First Lady Jill Biden is bringing the parents of Tyre Nichols, Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova, and Bono.
Some members of Congress will camp out in the first-come, first-serve aisle seats so they can be photographed greeting the president as he walks in. (Before the 2019 SOTU address, I remember watching Republican Reps. Billy Long and Louie Gohmert sit in the same seats for several hours just so they could be seen with Donald Trump.)
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The House GOP is trying to maximize its media reach
Tonight’s SOTU also serves as a big kickoff for House Republicans’ mostly policy-free Congress. For the past couple years, the GOP has had zero control over Congress or the White House. Now House Republicans, who have big plans for two years of investigations and symbolic votes, intend to use tonight’s SOTU to make a splash.
Yesterday and today, the House Republican Conference hosted a media row in the Cannon House Office Building, one of the buildings in the Capitol complex. The media row featured multiple backdrops displaying Republican branding and messaging.
They filled the large space not just with credentialed news outlets conducting live and taped stand-up interviews, but also with representatives of many right-wing media organizations who are not permitted to enter the Capitol during the State of the Union because they do not meet the stringent transparency or financial requirements to receive the necessary hard-pass gallery credential.
These included the Daily Signal, which is not a news organization in the conventional sense but the media arm of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank; and “Just the News,” the latest project from John Solomon, the journalist who made a name for himself pushing back on women who accused Donald Trump of sexual misconduct. Breitbart News, which was famously denied credentials for failing to cut ties with Steve Bannon, was also advertised on the media row, but it wasn’t clear whether they showed up.
House Republicans are so eager to get their message out to the public, many rank-and-file Republicans approached large TV station conglomerates present at the media row about booking on-camera interviews, even when those networks don’t have any active stations in their districts, leaving some journalists for the networks perplexed.
House Democrats also held a media row, but with far fewer outlets, in a much smaller room with simple branding, and without bringing in fringe voices from uncredentialed organizations.
Tonight, after Biden’s speech and the response from Sanders have wrapped, remember that Sanders’s speech is just one small moment. House Republicans are going all out to ensure there are a million more in every corner of the media landscape, especially the fringe.
It’s official: the House Ethics Committee is actively investigating George Santos
Kevin McCarthy confirmed today that the House Ethics Committee is probing Rep. George Santos, but the House speaker did not delve into any details, so we don’t know just what the committee will focus on. That’s expected. The Ethics Committee is tight-lipped about its work.
But Rep. Dan Goldman, a New York Democrat leading the grassroots pressure campaign for Santos’s resignation, told reporters today that he believes the Ethics Committee’s investigation will be “very narrowly focused on his financials” and not “on the litany of pathological lies that he has told.”
The Ethics Committee investigation, Goldman added, is “an effort by Speaker McCarthy to kick the can down the road in order to try to stave off the disrepute that George Santos brings not only to Congress but to the Republican party.”
But when I spoke last month with Rep. Andrew Garbarino, a New York Republican whose district borders Santos’s, he said that focusing on Santos’s alleged financial lies would be the appropriate path for the Ethics Committee. I talked with him just days before he was himself appointed to the committee and sworn to silence. “I think their responsibility would be over what he did—if he did anything—with financial disclosures. With what he’s had to file as a candidate,” Garbarino told me. “Lying on a resume, I don’t know if the Ethics Committee has really any say over that.”
And when I spoke last month with Tim Stretton of the Project on Government Oversight, who trains Capitol Hill staff on how to conduct investigations, he gave a very realistic view of how toothless the Ethics Committee can be, saying, “There’s really not a lot of consequences that really come from them.”
It is important to note that Santos could ride out the rest of his term without facing any real consequences at all. Even faced with an indictment, members of Congress don’t have to resign. Oftentimes, it only becomes real when they are convicted or assuredly heading towards a prison sentence.
This caught my eye: High ranking Republican adds to her stock portfolio
North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx disclosed last week the purchase of some stocks from industries that are routinely relevant to areas of her legislative work, both as chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and as a member of the Oversight Committee.
Foxx, whom The Bulwark, the New York Times, and other outlets have covered because of her trading on stocks that fall under her committees’ jurisdictions, bought as much as $15,000 each in Altria (Big Tobacco and vape) and FLEX LNG, a shipping company. A spokesperson for Foxx did not respond to a request for comment.