It would be impossible to name the craziest thing said by a Republican so far this year. This year? This week.
New entrants arrive constantly and the competition is feral. And yet paradoxically they don’t even shock anymore. But one recent Republican remark should arrest you and deserves your contemplation: John Boehner’s statement on Face the Nation Sunday that he and his House Republicans “ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”
It’s not an outrageous statement in the Obama-wants-to-impose-Sharia vein, but in its way it’s more disturbing. The Republican Party now sees dysfunction as not just an unfortunate consequence of a set of historical factors, something that they might work every now and again to correct. Now, the Republican Party sees dysfunction as its mission.
This, I think you’ll agree, is new. Let’s put it more emphatically. It’s absolutely new in American history. Well, there exists some precedent back in the 1840s and ’50s (also led then by reactionaries who were mostly Southern). But in our modern history, let’s say, since we solved the problem of the peculiar institution and later became the world’s most powerful nation, we’ve been a functioning democracy. There have been many moments of ugliness and sclerosis. But the particular qualities of the American system have generally produced what you could reasonably call governance.
From the start, we were not a parliamentary system, in which loyalty to the party is paramount and demanded. For a range of reasons, individual House members and especially senators have always had more autonomy than legislators in parliamentary systems do. This, along with the facts of our vast geography and diversity of interests, made our parties more flexible and ensured that cross-party ad-hoc coalitions could get laws passed.
We also had a tradition of legislative deference to the president—on foreign policy most of all, but also on domestic issues to some extent. A president’s top few priorities were always given a hearing, and compromise was usually reached. Tip O’Neill didn’t share Ronald Reagan’s priorities by a long shot, but he saw that Reagan won handily and he didn’t use the Rules Committee or any other trick to prevent the new president from enacting his agenda, though of course he did try to alter it. Even Newt Gingrich, after passing as much of his agenda as he could, sat down and talked turkey with Bill Clinton on a range of issues and struck a deal on Social Security and the budget.
I reread the above two paragraphs and I see that I sound a bit like a textbook, and a quaint one at that, one printed long ago. Certainly, the words and sentiments are irrelevant to most of the GOP members of the House. They really don’t care about any of those things. Consider this fascinating, and morbid, little fact: of the 230-odd Republican House members, fully half, 115, have served since only 2010 or 2012. They didn’t come to pass legislation. They came to burn the place down.
Boehner is handing them his trusty Bic lighter. Yes, a man wants to hold on to his job, I understand that. And yes, a speaker shouldn’t necessarily tip his hand on how he feels about an issue—immigration, say—until later in the process. But is Boehner being canny, or a coward? Virtually everything Boehner says publicly is designed to placate the pyromaniacs. And if he’s ever said anything behind closed doors designed to challenge them, they’ve kept it an awfully good secret (which would not happen; it would be leaked within seconds to ensure that he felt the lash of the Tea Partying millions).
They have brought us to a place we’ve never been before: post-governance America. Oh, they have to pass some bills to keep Social Security checks going out, defense contractors being paid, that sort of thing. But passing the minimal number of bills needed to keep the economy from crashing to Middle Earth isn’t the same thing as legislating. Or compromising. Those, they won’t do. As Jonathan Chait notes this week, their “negotiating” position with Obama is this: We’ll raise the debt ceiling for the rest of your term. All you have to do is sign the Ryan budget into law and privatize Medicare. Right.
I don’t see any way out of this. We are stuck here for years. In all likelihood, because of the 2010 gerrymandering, the Republicans are going to control the House at least until 2021. That’s eight. More. Years. And Boehner, let us not forget, is the “moderate” among those in the leadership. Say he lets an immigration vote happen and pisses off back to Cincinnati (Cincinnati? What am I saying? He’ll become a corporate lobbyist and buy a nice house in Leesburg.) Then we get Speaker Eric Cantor, or Speaker Paul Ryan. I have trouble envisioning what “worse” could be, but it would most certainly get worse under either of those two.
This isn’t a partisan crisis. It’s a historical crisis. And the political system can’t solve it. We need leaders from other walks of life, especially from the various branches of the business world, to stand up and say to the Republicans that dysfunction cannot be your mission. You must govern. Govern conservatively, but govern. And we need, as I’ve said before, big-dollar organizations that can boot some of these people out of office and replace them with a few Dick Lugars. We don’t need to repeal any laws. Repealing a hundred or so people is what we need.