On a June night in 1858, about 1,000 delegates to the Illinois state Republican convention met in the State House in Springfield to choose the man who would be their candidate for the United States Senate against incumbent Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, a political powerhouse who was popularly known as “The Little Giant” (a tweak on both his small physical stature and his outsize political influence on the American politics of the day). The decision those delegates made that early evening was a politically charged one in politically charged times; such was the atmosphere of those pre-Civil War days when the country was on the verge of coming apart over many contentious issues, particularly that of slavery.
The man they chose was a backwoods country lawyer whose only national political experience was that of a single term in the United States House of Representatives. And when he appeared before those delegates that night, Abraham Lincoln made a biblical allusion that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” He did not go on to win that office that time; but he saw the gathering storm that was brewing then; and within two short years he would find himself in the national capital as the president of a very dis-United States.
All this came to mind as I surveyed the recent political tsunami that has engulfed nearly all of political Washington, especially that branch of the Congress that is known as the House of Representatives—the branch, which in popular lore, is supposed to be “The People’s House.” The crisis in the House revolves around its chief executive officer who is supposed to be the physical embodiment of that chamber, its history, and what it is supposed to represent. The political infighting of the last weeks and months have put “The People’s House” and the people within it—the members of Congress themselves—in a very bad light. (And come to think of it, of the people themselves who put them there: the voters.)
For the last several months, one faction of the House Republican caucus (those who ascribe to the views of the Tea Party and other conservative groups with even sterner opinions) has been (to put it mildly) at odds with others within that caucus, making what should be the normal legislative process virtually come to a screeching halt, thus putting a monkey wrench into the workings of government when there are so many critical issues that need to be addressed right now.
Since last spring, there have been moves in the House by certain members to have John A. Boehner of Ohio removed from the chair that sits atop the Speaker’s rostrum. (There were half-hearted moves against him then, but at the time they were manifestations of below-the-surface grumblings and unhappiness with the direction of the House leadership, particularly the speaker’s. Such moves were pushed back and repulsed.) They wanted him removed because they viewed him as not being sufficiently “conservative” enough to their liking and for giving (in their eyes) insufficient promotion of their pet programs and policies.
It got to the point that votes on issues and topics were delayed or dismissed altogether for lack of agreement among members and the lack of consensus to even allow particular measures to be put forward for either an up-or-down vote. There were those in the House who wanted conduct governmental business by not doing business at all—but by simply shutting down the government so that nothing can be done on anything that they disapproved of, no matter whether the subject under consideration was good, bad or indifferent to other members. To certain ideological members, government by temper tantrums and threats (as personified by Texas Senator Ted Cruz) was preferable than the normal processes of give-and-take and compromise, which historically has been the modus operandi of American legislative halls.
For a long time, the Republican Party was the minority party in government until it started winning the congressional elections in the 1990’s, particularly during the Clinton-Gingrich years. Having been out of power for so long, it took time for House Republicans to gain their legislative footing. They had to relearn control not only of the speakership, but of House committees and chairmanships and all the various ephemera involved with organizing the House of Representatives. But, as often happens, when a party starts to get giddy with newfound power and control, it begins before long to lose their grip not only on the machinery of governance, but more seriously and importantly, their grip on political reality, as is the case now.
The position of Speaker of the House of Representatives is an important one in our political system; it is the third most important national office, right after that of President and the Vice President. It is no small thing, and it is no small office. It was mandated in both the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 as well as the 25th amendment to the Constitution of 1967, due to the presidential succession crises of the 20th century, with the illnesses and death of presidents such as FDR, Dwight Eisenhower, and JFK and LBJ (and especially later on, in the resignation crisis of Richard Nixon). In the modern era, the Speakership took on greater importance politically; it was to be more than a legislative officer-traffic cop of one branch of Congress. So when nothing was being done and governmental business being slowed down and often threatened with being shut down, the personal and political crisis for Speaker Boehner came to a head.
So he decided to resign—both the speakership as well as his congressional seat.
Those twin resignations came on the heels of the very successful and meaningful visit of Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C. and the first-ever address of a pope to a joint-session of the Congress—an event that was engineered by the speaker himself, in an invitation to the pope from the year before, when Pope Francis’ trip was in its early planning stages. So when he made the announcement of his twin resignations, Speaker Boehner engineered a political earthquake that no one saw coming, even those who were long-time, old Washington hands.
In the days after the pope’s visit and the speaker’s bombshell news, people began to reflect on those events of those days in a new light, especially of that day when Speaker Boehner was often in tears in the presence of the pope. His crying might have been of a dual nature: he was crying because, as a Catholic, he realized he was in the presence of the Vicar of Christ on Earth and, unknown to everyone at the time, he might have also been crying over “what might have been” as regards the office he had held for several years—and was now surrendering—and what could have been accomplished, had it not been for political backbiting and infighting that has become commonplace in our politics.
In a way, he pulled the political version of a Benedict XVI, in that by resigning, he was holding up for all to see an institution and a mode of governance made nearly impossible by human machinations (and in the Catholic case, sin). Speaker Boehner has often been mocked for so openly shedding tears in public; we often forget that those we elect to public office did not leave their humanity behind them once they take the oath of office—showing one’s emotions in public can be a dicey thing; one can only look to past examples of a Bob Dole (“Where’s the outrage!” in 1996), an Edmund Muskie (crying in New Hampshire’s snows outside the Manchester Union Leader’s offices in 1972) or even a Hillary Clinton (in 2008 against Barack Obama, in a debate trying to show that she was “likeable enough”). John Boehner might have been a partisan—and a proud one at that—but he wasn’t a robot. Indeed, he fit the late Hubert Humphrey’s definition: “A man who can’t cry is not a human being.” Among other things in our politics, we are also in danger of losing comity in our political relations.
And now, we see even more political “earthquakes”: John Boehner’s expected successor, Kevin McCarthy of California and House Majority Leader, told the members of the Republican caucus that he intended to step aside in the leadership race; he stated that he was not the man to bring unity to the party caucus or to the House in the position as speaker. There are now moves to get Paul Ryan, who was the party’s 2012 Vice-presidential nominee to enter the race. He has said he does not want to be Speaker; he did not even want to run for the presidency in this election cycle because—as he viewed it—he would be of more importance to the party with his congressional work on budgetary matters. So far, he is holding off. Since there is no consensus candidate to rally around, many feel that even greater pressure will be put on Mr. Ryan to accept the post not only out of duty, but out of party fealty. Whether he can withstand those demands remains to be seen.
The only thing that is clear now is that there is a majority party in one house of the Congress in alarming disarray and a government that is ever more dysfunctional. And we have all of this in a presidential election year, when even those candidates that are running—in either party—are sorely lacking in the eyes of the voters, making them yearning for a leader. Surely, if delegates in a long-ago state convention can somehow come together and select a candidate for a national office, a modern-day party caucus should be able to come together to elect a presiding officer of their branch of the United States government. That should not be too hard a task—or is it?
Not too long ago, my proud Irish-born mother and (equally proud) naturalized American citizen of some years, noticed something interesting on the back of a supermarket chain’s box of bran cereal that she was opening for breakfast one morning: it had a complete chart of the three branches of the government of the United States of America (with a beautiful color representation of the United States Capitol at the top). She pointed out to me (as if I didn’t know it!) what were the functions of those branches of government. With an appraising eye (as only a mother can), she commented to me (given the silliness our politicians are too often prone to now) that the back of that cereal box ought to be sent to every member of the United States government, from the president on down: “Perhaps they could learn something.”
What is going on now in the House of Representatives should be alarming to every concerned citizen, no matter what party he or she adheres to. It is an occasion for embarrassment, shame and regret—and not some anger. If there is anything—person or institution—that “needs to get its act together,” it is the United States House of Representatives. They are not elected to throw temper tantrums, but to govern. If a certain group of members campaign and run on only one idea--that they do not like government--then they have no business whatsoever in running for office. Public office is a public service and a public trust: it is not a forum to spew political venom. If that is their only aim, then there are plenty of radio and TV talk shows they can host and appear on, before likeminded audiences. Such "office holders" are the true wasters of the public dime.
Whether they like it or not, members of Congress will have to make politically charged decisions for politically charged times. If they don’t, then more than the House will be divided--and that will be a pathetic commentary, not only on the American political system, but on America itself. That is something we should never stand for or accept.