Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.
Continuing his lecture from the well of the House of Representatives, Pope Francis instructed:
If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.
In his September 24 address, Francis framed his message of wholeness through the lives of four Americans: Lincoln, Martin Luther King, the Catholic socialist agitator Dorothy Day, and the Trappist ascetic Thomas Merton. Its most powerful passage, which the pope related to migration waves into Europe and the United States, concerned the Golden Rule:
“If we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”
The pope closed with a refined definition of greatness:
A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.
Sitting behind him, Speaker John Boehner took the pope’s message to heart. The next morning, he told the House Republican caucus over which he presides: I’m not up to the job.
At a press conference hours later, Boehner said, “I’ve done everything I can over my term as speaker to strengthen the institution. And frankly, my move today is another step in that effort to strengthen the institution.” What should citizens expect from the House after his departure? “If the Congress stays focused on the American people’s priorities, there will be no problem at all.”
Would that Boehner had acted as Francis prescribed:
A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.
Recent congressional leaders – House and Senate, Republican and Democratic – have been about “possessing spaces”: representing their caucuses (and keeping their majestic offices), not serving the whole.
Boehner’s predecessor from 1999 to 2007, the avuncular Dennis Hastert, formalized a practice in which the House considers only proposals supported by a majority of the majority – that is, in many circumstances, a minority. The House has long operated as a 50-percent-plus-one institution, but under the Hastert rule the minority party is consistently ignored to serve the narrowest interest of the majority party. When Nancy Pelosi became speaker after the Democratic wave of 2006, she adopted a similar practice. That’s why Congress has so rarely in the past decade passed a budget or a highway bill, why the perfect remains the enemy of the good.
The “Hastert rule,” combined with two decades of methodical and mathematical gerrymandering, has created a House that cannot govern: The intransigent minority – especially rabid under the GOP – does not respect the reality that it may represent the passions of a dozen or two districts, but it does not represent America.
Boehner hamstrung himself by refusing to reverse Hastert’s legacy. In a September 27 interview on CBS’s Face the Nation, he recognized the box, but not that he had put himself in it.
“This whole idea that we were going to shut down the government to get rid of Obamacare in 2013, this plan never had chance,” Boehner said. “A lot of my Republican colleagues who knew it was a fool’s errand . . . were getting all this pressure from home to do this. And so we have got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know are never going to happen.”
As speaker, Boehner let the damaging scenario play out – a 16-day “shutdown” – rather than protecting the institution and the government of which it is a part. Until his successor(s) makes a different choice – to recognize that most Americans prefer compromise to dysfunction – we will endure the same dynamic.