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There are few constants in Washington D.C. these days. One of them is how often generally good ideas become absolute non-starters, often thanks to the bad faith actions that poison the well.
Once upon a time, Congress, especially the Senate, was considered a deliberative body (sometimes we still call it such, but it has long since ceased to be so). The Speaker of the House, for instance, was considered an institutional leader first and the leader of the majority second. As much as possible, legislative action was to be the product of serious deliberation and general consensus. Even just a few decades ago, it was not uncommon to see certain initiatives achieve significant buy-in from all parties concerned. Some measures would sometimes pass in the Senate with only a few dissenting votes.
Consensus was once a coveted status quo aggressively sought by both sides of the aisle. The belief was that the legitimacy of legislative action was just as important as achieving the legislation. This notion of consensus still exists in the judiciary (our only healthy branch of government). Many judges and justices will refuse to overturn precedent, even ones they seriously disagree with, unless they can achieve more than a simple majority.
But today, partisan victory at all costs is the only bottom line. Partisans of all stripes prefer passing legislation on the slimmest vote possible to get what they want and only what they want rather than engaging in the c-word (compromise) to achieve a broad consensus. Many party leaders are even willing to allow important measures to fail as they maneuver for future elections and political showdowns.
The worst culprits of these dysfunctional trends in the halls of our government are the leaders of the two opposing caucuses in the House of Representatives: Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy. Neither of these two members of Congress appears to have an institutional bone in their bodies. Worse, their spines have a most fantastic ability to bend whichever way the political winds blow.
Nothing perhaps better exemplifies the failings of these two “leaders” than the complete mess that has come of efforts to establish a January 6th Commission.
On January 6th, images of the Capital Riot sent a message to the world. It was a message that heavily suggested a Democracy in peril, a collapse of political and societal integrity in the world’s lone superpower, and a serial demonstration of weakness. Far too many actors the world over have watched and taken notice of what they deem as a permission slip to advance interests counter to our own.
Riots happen all the time, and mobs have assembled and engaged in violence since time immemorial. But attacks on a government’s seat of power rise to another plane of symbolism. Such attacks are signs of weakness, decay, and growing illegitimacy. No matter who you voted for in 2020, it should be the desire of all Americans to push back against this message of weakness and do whatever we have to do to reaffirm the integrity of our governing institutions and the legitimacy of our political processes—unfortunately, the underlying political decay and institutional weakness that set the stage for January 6th remains.
Nancy Pelosi, for example, was not operating as the leader of the House of Representatives when she offered her initial poison pill measure to create a January 6th Commission with an imbalance of Democrats and Republicans. She was operating as the leader of a tenuous party caucus maneuvering to create a wedge issue to hold together and strengthen her own party’s majority in Congress. She has signaled her willingness to scuttle the efforts to create something that, objectively, the country needs. Why? Because her more pressing objective is to pad her prospects of maintaining partisan power.
Similarly, Kevin McCarthy was not operating as a minority partner in deliberative government nor, quite frankly, as a statesman interested in the overall health of the American Republic when, even after the Democrats conceded to the demands of his chosen negotiator, he came out against the commission and demanded a broad mandate for the commission to investigate every instance of political violence under the sun. (This is a poison pill in answer to a poison pill. Anyone with any sense of congressional institutional history knows that commissions with broad mandates typically end with watered down and useless conclusions. Better to have no commission at all than to have an ambling, directionless effort that would only get lost in the weeds).
The result of all this may very well end up being that there will not be a January 6th Commission at all. This will send another unfortunate message to the world. It’s a message that, in America, we can’t even agree on a shared sense of facts. We can’t get to the bottom of our own failures. And, neither side of our partisan internecine dumpster fire can set down their desire to gain advantage against each other long enough to find ways to re-establish trust in the political process or the integrity of our institutions and sociopolitical health.
Worst of all is that it will all likely end with everyone pointing fingers, no one accepting any responsibility, and hyper-partisans of both sides using yet another institutional failure as a wedge issue to encourage hapless voters to deliver another mandate for continued dysfunction.
One can’t help but wonder if we even still have the capacity to learn our lessons before the next shoe drops.