This year’s State of the Union address is gearing up to rival the spectacle created by the White House Correspondents Dinner, with members of Congress competing to bring notable guests to the Capitol, transforming the building for one night into another D.C. national petting zoo.
Unlike the so-called Nerd Prom, tonight’s event at the Capitol features few silver screen celebrities. Nevertheless, atop the guest list today is Willie Robertson, of “Duck Dynasty” fame, who is expected to attend at the invitation of Rep. Vance McAllister, R-La.
Robertson helped McAllister win a crowded primary, but his attendance is somewhat divisive, as his father, Phil, created a national controversy late last year with remarks widely perceived as anti-gay during an interview with GQ magazine.
“Willie is thankful for this opportunity and honored to attend,” McAllister said in a written statement today. “I look forward to the two of us representing the Fifth District [of Louisiana] in D.C. this evening and bringing some diversity to our nation’s capital.”
Many lawmakers have chosen guests who draw attention to a pet project or issue that the president may include or choose to ignore during his address this evening.
Freshman Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., is bringing Charles Woods, the father of Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, one of four Americans killed during the terrorist attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.
“As a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, I understand the importance of knowing that America leaves no one behind. I am honored to host the father of a true hero,” Bridenstine said. “One of the first bills I cosponsored in Congress [would] establish a select committee on Benghazi. The resolution has 180 cosponsors. No action has been taken on it.”
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who jumped into the national spotlight as the target of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal, is expected to join his representative, Democrat Bill Pascrell, for the address.
Rep. Robert Pittinger, R-N.C., is bringing Sgt. Matt Cooke, who used his body to shield others during the 2009 Fort Hood massacre. Pittinger said he invited Cooke because the Obama administration has refused to classify the Fort Hood massacre as a terrorist attack, so Cooke and other victims are not eligible for the Purple Heart. That means they receive fewer disability benefits than soldiers wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“We reacted like soldiers when the terrorist cry rang out. We defended and protected each other to the best of our abilities, even though we were unarmed,” Cooke wrote in a statement circulated by Pittinger’s office. “Soldiers died and soldiers were wounded trying to protect others and stop the terrorist. We appreciate the Members of Congress who have acknowledged our service and wish that President Obama would treat and respect us as Warriors, not civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Myunghee Bae and Terri Chung, mother and sister of North Korean prisoner Kenneth Bae, are guests of Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.
“I have repeatedly called upon [North Korea] to release Kenneth Bae and would like to reiterate this message by bringing his family as guests to the State of the Union,” said Rangel, a Korean War veteran. “I have long advocated for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and hope North Korea would take steps to build trust and reconciliation by first reuniting the Bae family.”
Last year, the chamber was filled with dozens of victims of gun violence, just weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting. And First Lady Michelle Obama hosted former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head by a gunman, and her husband Mark Kelly.
While the first lady traditionally packs her box with several guests who help build the president’s message, members of Congress are allowed just one guest ticket in the chamber so invitations are exclusive and in high demand.
As he has in past years, House Speaker John Boehner will host parents, students, and teachers from the Consortium of Catholic Academies — a nonprofit organization supporting students of four inner-city Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Washington. Boehner will also welcome several constituents from manufacturing and small business sectors of the economy.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has invited Art Laffer, an American economist who gained prominence during the Reagan administration for the Laffer Curve and his theory for a tax rate that would produce maximum tax revenue for governments.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will be joined by Eliseo Medina, the International Secretary-Treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), who leads his union’s efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., will be joined by Lilly Ledbetter, whose case for fair pay ascended to the Supreme Court and inspired congressional action that became the first bill President Obama signed into law.
Several Illinois Democrats are also bringing immigration advocates, while other Democrats have invited several people impacted by the lapse in emergency unemployment benefits.