Burning Down The House
Before craziness and chaos engulfed the House of Representatives in the saga of electing a new speaker, a Kodak moment provided a vivid portrait of the relative health of our two major political parties and our nation as a whole.
There stood Nancy Pelosi raising the gavel for the last time as speaker in front of the imposing scroll-back chair from which she had wielded power. Her job at that moment was purely ceremonial — closing the 117th Congress — but the symbolism was poignant. It marked an end to a Congress of action and accomplishment and the beginning of an era of performative pandemonium. The gavel stood there in mid-air like a baton with no one to accept it.
In the reporting on Kevin McCarthy’s travails for gaining the speakership, many have noted how small his majority is, how he can afford to lose only a few votes, and that therein lies his major problem. But as others have pointed out, Pelosi had a small majority in the last Congress — yet she maintained unity in her party and ran the House with efficiency and precision, and to great effect.
The dumpster fire we are witnessing now has been smoldering for years, if not decades. It is what happens when people elect representatives who actively hate the idea of governance. It is what happens when people rack up victories with Fox News rants and not legislation. It is what happens when a quest for power means you’re willing to yield and appease everyone and everything that can help you secure it.
To be sure, crooks, cranks, and malevolent embarrassments have not been the exclusive purview of any one political party over the years. The nature of democracy is that it can be very messy; in moments of passion, fear, or even apathy, it can sweep into office all manner of men and women who have no business being there. The idea of a legislature, however, is that the whims, idiosyncrasies, and destructive instincts of a few can be tempered by the many. Obviously that is not what is happening now.
There is a tendency among some in the beltway press to frame this as a battle of the political extremes, how the far right is undermining Republican initiatives. In this analysis there is often a perfunctory “both sides” mention of the political left, which also supposedly threatens the “center” and the ability to govern.
This simplistic framing misses the mark at this moment. On the Republican side, it is not clear what the renegades want, other than to figuratively burn down the house (or House). Some have specific demands, and McCarthy has caved more than a spelunker. But it’s still not good enough. Furthermore, these demands are almost exclusively about process and not policy. It’s about allowing a nihilistic minority to foment perpetual mayhem, thereby undercutting the debate and responsible compromise that should be the business of Congress. Ultimately, it’s about accommodating Steve Bannon and not delivering for constituents.
There is no analogous movement on the left. Even if one disagrees with the policy positions of the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party, ultimately those members of Congress are almost all institutionalists — in that they believe in the idea and work of the legislative branch of government. They understand that you need a speaker for the House to function, so they backed Pelosi. They left the debates and disagreements for individual bills and votes. That, by the way, is how the Founders envisioned it.
But this isn’t just about Pelosi, as formidable as her leadership skills were. The Democrats also have rallied around her successor, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who occupies more of the moderate middle of the party. As Republicans embarrass themselves on the national stage with rounds and rounds of votes, the Democrats have held steady in unity behind Jeffries. It’s an impressive show of discipline for a political party that was once mocked (including by Democratic members of Congress) for having all the herding instincts of cats.
As much as this spectacle is gaining the attention of the American people, make no mistake that it is being watched with keen eyes around the world — by our friends and foes alike. Our allies wonder, especially in the wake of the last administration, whether they can count on America. Will these renegades blow up the world economy by defaulting on American debt? Will they pass a budget? Will they support Ukraine? Will they actively continue to undermine America’s democratic traditions?
Meanwhile, in places like Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang, despots, autocrats, and dictators are cheering our divisions and the distance they create between our national ideals and our political reality. In moments of instability in Washington, the entire world becomes more dangerous. Not that the Republican holdouts care.
The public debasement of House Republicans may make for great schadenfreude viewing for Democrats. Some literally broke out the popcorn in the House chamber. But ultimately this is a sad moment for our country. We need strong political parties that believe in negotiating, legislating, and governing. We need individual congresswomen and men of decency and integrity. We need strength and thoughtfulness to tackle our myriad problems.
We need a Congress, not a circus.
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