April 24, 2024

Cleaning House

Rookie Speaker Mike Johnson chooses action over argument.

Let’s face it: The Republicans’ tenure as the majority party leading the U.S. House of Representatives has been a hot mess. Calling it unimpressive would be too kind.

Watching the ongoing chaos, much of it self-inflicted, reminded me of my all-time favorite Dr. Seuss book, appropriately titled If I Ran the Zoo. I read it aloud to my young sons so many times that I can still recite whole tracts verbatim:

It’s a pretty good zoo, said young Gerald McGrew — and the fellow who runs it seems proud of it too… But if I ran the zoo, I’d make a few changes. That’s JUST what I’d do!

The reality, of course, is that actually doing something generally turns out to be a lot tougher than throwing rocks at those who are doing it. The new speaker, Mike Johnson (R-LA), is the GOP’s Gerald McGrew — and he has his hands full running this zoo.

As an example, I recently received a fundraising plea from Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who’s embarking on a “RINO hunt” and needs financial support. No thanks. With both the world and our nation in turmoil, the last thing we need is for Republicans to organize a posse to find and root out other Republicans whose commitment to conservatism is supposedly insufficiently pure.

The single factor jeopardizing Republican prospects for gaining leadership in both chambers of Congress this November — an otherwise achievable goal in today’s political climate — is their demonstrable inability to lead themselves, made painfully obvious by their wheel-spinning, false starts, and reversals in selecting a House speaker.

Gaetz and his like-minded colleagues rightly strive to ensure that GOP-sponsored House legislation reflects their strongly held priorities. Yet, as elected representatives, it is their job as well to constructively support a House operation that meets the nation’s needs. Surely they must recognize that pushing legislative proposals that are doomed to go down in flames achieves absolutely nothing. That’s performance art, no more.

It’s not a pretty picture. But from the GOP’s painful ordeal, there are some positives as well:

1.) Mike Johnson has demonstrated that he’s up to the job. Clearly, he has decided that he is the speaker of the whole House, not just the speaker of the Republican representatives, and certainly not just the speaker of the Republican flame-throwing crowd.

By now, he also recognizes that it’s a thankless job. His successes in consensus-building across the aisle have earned him mountains of scorn, but evidently he is willing to take the heat, and he’s unwilling to let keeping his job take priority over doing it properly. Whether his is a short- or long-term speakership, he has earned our respect.

2.) The stopgap process employed by the new speaker to break the logjam in authorization for defense aid to Ukraine and Israel also serves as a test platform for substantial improvement in the House’s legislative process. By simultaneously putting forward several simple, clear, and concise bills, and by providing ample time to read and digest them, he made it possible for House members to cast informed up-or-down votes on each.

This is a dramatic improvement over the now-common megabills with thousands of pages of impenetrable detail — bills like the ObamaCare legislation once described by Nancy Pelosi with the words, “We have to pass it to find out what’s in it.”

3.) Perhaps most importantly, the Republicans’ adventure in attempting to manage a razor-thin (now down to one seat) majority in the House of Representatives demonstrates conclusively that fringe minorities, far left or far right, cannot carry the day for very long. The only sustainable path is finding common ground, inevitably near the center.

The reason? That’s where the country is on many issues — also split right down the middle. The House GOP leadership’s difficulty in moving forward where necessary is fundamentally the same as that facing whoever is chosen to be our next president in navigating the challenges facing our nation.

Joe Biden’s lurch to the left following his 2020 election win is a case in point. It seemed to work for a while — owning the White House and both chambers of Congress will do that — but it was never in tune with the mood or the wider interests of the nation. Democrats lost the House (albeit barely) in 2022, and the growing public disconnect with the administration’s lead in many areas is becoming glaringly apparent in opinion polling now — and could cost Biden reelection.

Perhaps years of bowing to fringe elements on both the Left and the Right has opened the door to a very fresh-thinking, practical electorate. Our public is aching for commonsense actions on obvious problems and is weary of unnecessarily partisan opposition at every turn.

Johnson insists we don’t have to choose between protecting our borders and helping our allies fend off savage attacks, and we can engage both sides of the political divide in making such decisions.

In doing so, he was rewarded by accusations of treachery, weakness, and cowardice. It may cost him his job. But I’d call it leadership.

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