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Congress, Good God
"I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress."
One of my early introductions to politics, American history, and the founding era was when my grandparents took me to a performance of 1776 at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 2003. While the play is definitely a fanciful and perhaps overly comical (and often vulgar) affair, I was nevertheless struck by the humanity of the founding fathers and the difficulty they faced in trying to found a new nation out of squabbling and back-biting colonies, represented by often pompous and equally squabbling men. I like to think it was a gift at a young age that I was presented with such an early view of how “the sausage is made.”
Looking at ostensibly deliberative bodies, such as Congress, it is often difficult to deduce whether its processes are functional or dysfunctional. As the character John Adams in the opening scene of 1776 opines,
“Dear God. For one solid year they have been sitting here. A whole year! Doing nothing! I do believe you’ve laid a curse on North America. A curse that we here now rehearse in Philadelphia. A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locusts everywhere, or a cataclysmic earthquake I’d accept with some despair. But, no, you’ve sent us Congress. Good God, sir, was that fair?”
While the real John Adams never said this, it’s a fair representation of how he and many of the other delegates of the Second Continental Congress felt. It’s easy to forget that well over a year did, in fact, pass between the shots fired at Lexington and Concord and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, for anyone who has studied the adoption of that document by that Congress, it seems a veritable miracle that such a body of unruly delegates could have agreed on anything unanimously, let alone on the decision to poke King George in the eye and declare themselves traitors to the crown.
The miracle, of course, is deliberation, an often-messy affair that involves debating, deal-making, giving and taking, and, the dreaded “c-word” of our current political era, compromise. Whether pressed forward by events, swept up in the spirit of the age, led by the vision of ultimately great men, or guided by the very hand of Providence (or a healthy mix of all the above), the apparent dysfunction of the Second Continental Congress ended up proving itself to be very functional indeed, culminating in what still stands as one of the greatest declarations on the rights of men in human history.
With this historical backdrop in mind, then, how are we to judge the past week in Congressional history? The prevailing narrative on both sides of the aisle is that the fifteen votes it took to elect Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House were “embarrassing.” Republicans and their allies worry that their majority has been weakened and their legislative priorities now stand in doubt. Democrats and their allies assert that Republicans have demonstrated their unseriousness and shown that they can’t responsibly govern.
These two assertions may be true. There’s little doubt, for example, that most of the Republicans who stood in the way of a McCarthy single-vote coronation cared more about showboating than they did about working towards meaningful accomplishments in the new Congress and that their words and deeds demonstrated an acute unseriousness in governance and the lack of discipline required to govern.
However, I think it’s far too early to judge whether the Speaker drama simply reflects ongoing dysfunction or proves to be a step towards more functional legislating and the return to regular order. After all, the difference between minced meat and sausage is more in the finished product than in their processes.
So, as we discuss what happened with the Speakership vote and what, at first glimpse, looked like a complete circus, let’s remember to step back and put such seemingly chaotic deliberations into historical context. Our form of government is meant to be messy and even sometimes chaotic, especially in the House of Representatives.
As George Washington allegedly commented to Thomas Jefferson, the House is the hot scalding tea while the Senate is the cooling saucer. The House, fully re-elected every two years, is meant to be our most populist and most unruly institution of federal government. The chaos, the unruliness, and even the theatrics are by design. Through the House, we have the most accurate representation of the temperature and mood of the people themselves. The House is the thermometer of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times we live in.
From this perspective, then, we should perhaps be more concerned with rubber stamp elections than protracted political battles, more wary of lock-step partisan behavior than contrary and independent behavior from representatives, and more indignant of a top-down process that looks neat and functional but exhibits the most subversive dysfunction possible because it robs the people’s representatives of having a full voice in the crafting of our laws which, though often seemingly chaotic, reflects the true bottom-up deliberation intended for our form of representative government.
To be sure, I remain dubious that the events pressing forward our current political moment are moving us in a good direction, that the spirit of our age is a healthy one, and that the men and women currently serving in the 118th Congress are of the high caliber reflecting the traditions of free and responsible government. However, I do trust in the auxiliary precautions of our constitutional republic, and I remain steadfast in my belief that the destiny of our nation is in the hands of Providence.
And so, while my instinct, like so many others, will often be to observe Washington and declare, “Good God, I have had this Congress!” I will nevertheless remember to temper my own boiling frustration in the saucer of prudence and experience, and to watch and pray with hope and optimism, reminding myself that making even the most pristine sausage is an ugly and messy affair.