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Master of the House

On two occasions this week, television commentators with years of experience in chronicling our American story were at a loss for words. On Monday, we sat with them in shocked silence as paramedics tried to bring 24-yr-old Damar Hamlin back to life on a football field in Cincinnati Ohio. Long periods of video images were broadcast without words to millions of American homes as we prayed for the life of this young safety for the Buffalo Bills. The same words and phrases, “unprecedented,” “all we can do is pray,” “football is secondary to the life of this young man” were repeated by the commentators who were living this moment right along with the fans.

Fortunately, due to the swift action of paramedics and team professionals and the expert care at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, Damar Hamlin’s prognosis seems to be improving as I write this on January 6, 2023. Thanks be to God.

The second occasion of speechless commentators this week has been the protracted election of a Speaker of the House of Representations for the 118th Congress. This does not have the gravity of the life of a young man, but as a student of our political history and an eyewitness observer of four decades of the US Congress, I proffer that it does have a great deal to do with the life of our young Republic. The first requirement in having a government is the ability to govern.

I have promised myself that this blog would not be political, and I still make that promise to my readers. I have made a concerted effort to limit my Washington observations to the facts and to mainstream political science. This blog will be the same.

Let me begin with the admission that I love the House of Representatives.

The architecture, traditions, personalities, symbolism, and memories of the House are dear to me. I sat in the gallery with my dad as a young tourist and I sat in the same gallery on countless occasions to watch the process work both for and against the positions that I have championed for archives and legal aid. When I retired, my name was spoken on that floor in a speech by Congressman Steny Hoyer in thanks for my service to the Nation. That little piece of the Congressional Record I will always cherish.

The US Senate had an equal impact on my life and career, but its different rules, pace, and formality are not as reflective of the messiness of America. It is not as diverse, as unpredictable, as “hurley burley” as the People’s House. When you are in the Senate Gallery, you are closer to the floor and in a more intimate position to the actions below. But the House Gallery looks out on a larger landscape, a vast floor more reminiscent of our sprawling Nation.

One memory stands out. In the Spring of 1993, I went to visit Congressman John Joseph Moakley (D-MA), Chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. The Archives needed a change in the law to benefit the Kennedy Library in Boston and while Senator Kennedy had everything in place on his side, we needed both language and calendar help from the House. “Joe” Moakley of Boston was the man for the job and as I was ascending in the ornate Capitol elevator that day, I knew that I was about to visit one of the most powerful members of the Democratic Caucus. I was announced and escorted in to see the Chairman. He was on the phone with Charles “Chuck” Daly, Director of the Kennedy Library. Chuck had dual citizenship and was calling from a pub in Bantry, Ireland. There was no logical place to sit down, so I stood at Joe’s desk as he chatted with Chuck.

Two things I clearly remember. Joe’s desk was table-style with a giant photographic image of a US Dollar Bill decoupaged on the top. Secondly, the conversation that I overheard was clearly for my entertainment. Moakley looked at me and said to Daly, “so you say this Constance guy is alright and somebody I can trust. Well, he looks pretty smart to me, so I’ll take your word for it.” I had gotten the Irish pol certification, all the way from the Emerald Isle to the House. Joe bid Chuck adieu and turned his attention to me.

After the brief details of what I hoped the Chairman would do for us, he agreed, stood to shake my hand, and directed me to a door not 10 feet from where we were standing. I thanked him and walked through that door. It opened directly into the gallery of the House Chamber, not the hallway but the actual gallery. I stood there in shocked, disoriented silence as the door closed behind me. The House was in recess, so the cavernous space was dark save for a spotlight on the American flag, the Speaker’s rostrum, and several of the exit doors. In the dim light I found my way to a seat in the backrow and sat down. I took a deep breath and absorbed the atmosphere. I knew that I had to get to a payphone to let my boss know we had made the sale, but this moment was too precious to rush.

I thought of the day Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood at that rostrum and delivered his Day of Infamy speech. I thought of Winston Churchill, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Presidents of the United States from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton who had stood in that hallowed spot to address the Congress, the Nation, and the World. This quiet space and the empty rotunda of the National Archives are as close to a church nave as you get in our national life. The words said there; the words preserved there reverberate:

· This is a day that will live in infamy

· Old soldiers never die, they just fade away

· We SHALL overcome

So, imagine, if you will, my view and perspective on the proceedings to begin the 118th Congress of the United States.

The commentators are again at a loss to properly describe this unfolding human tragedy on the sacred floor of the People’s House. While all of the jokes about Groundhog Day are amusing as vote after vote are conducted by the Clerk of the House, my overriding emotion this week has been sadness tinged with some anger.

The sadness is over the fact that the vote for Speaker has been a routine, largely ceremonial event for over a century. It is ceremonial because the majority party has two months to organize, debate, compromise, and put their leadership into order. Sixty days and sixty nights to prepare. Sixty days and sixty nights to do the quiet work of governance.

But if a significant portion of your colleagues do not believe in government, do not believe in governing, and see politics as purely a nihilist performance art, sixty days or six hundred days are insufficient to reach agreement.

Combine that with the weak leadership that ensured the slimmest of electoral majorities, refused to discipline members whose violent words and actions brought shame and embarrassment to the body, and used a Mar-a-Lago weathervane rather than a compass to discern true North, and you ensure the inevitability of this train wreck.

I didn’t know when the chickens were going to come home to roost, but I have been watching them on sky tracker for a dozen years. Because, you see, the same forces that have been on display this week are the forces that literally retired me in 2012 and brought me to Raleigh NC. This is where the anger comes in.

The 112th Congress convened on January 3, 2011, and elected John Boehner Speaker of the House. Resulting from a true Red Wave, there were 13 new Senators (one Democrat and 12 Republicans) and 94 new representatives (9 Democrats and 85 Republicans). Call it the Tea Party election, the Obama Care backlash election, or just a worse than typical midterm drubbing of the President’s party. As the lobbyist for a social justice agency, my life changed that day.

The Legal Services Corporation is the Nation’s largest funder of legal aid for low-income Americans. While criminal defendants are guaranteed legal counsel due to Gideon v. Wainwright, representation is not provided in civil matters (child custody, housing, employment). As the Director of Government Relations and Public Affairs for the Legal Services Corporation, I represented the Corporation on Capitol Hill and lobbied for their annual appropriation. Just before this historic election, I had worked with Senator Tom Harkin, Congressman Adam Schiff, and others to bring our congressional funding to its high-water mark for the modern era. Our appropriation stood at $420 million for FY 2010.

My staff and I had been following the election closely and already had a pretty good bio file on all new members. When the committee assignments were announced, we did even deeper research on the Senators and Representatives who would sit on our oversight and funding committees. My lead deputy and I divided the list and started the face-to-face rounds. With 94 new House members, the mountain was pretty high for a team of two, but we had been to this rodeo before and started our meetings.

After the first week or so, we both agreed that we seemed to be having the same meeting over and over. The talking points coming from the new Republican members were so consistent, so dismissive of our mission, so entrenched in not only cutting the size of government but eliminating many functions of government. Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader and Kevin McCarthy, Majority Whip had crafted a consistent message that was being parroted by the new membership. Like the messaging, one got the feeling that decision-making was going to cascade from the top and we were not talking with the decision makers.

The Chairman of my Board and my ultimate boss had not been around Washington politics long enough to understand that having the facts and logic on your side was not the key to success. He directed us to have more meetings and we complied, but after visiting 50 of the 85 new House Republican freshman I went back to the office one day and told Jim Sandman, President of the LSC that if I had to have one more meeting with these guys, I would jump off the roof of the building. I knew we were on the Battan Death March, and it was time to check in to a Holiday Inn Express and think this over. We were talking about proper funding for a proper function of government, and they were neither buying the function nor the funding.

Simultaneously, I had two chance encounters with Washington professionals who I knew and trusted. I was invited to the National Archives for an exhibit opening reception and ran into my old friend Cokie Roberts. (See Patron Saints, October 15, 2021). After pleasantries I reminded her of my new job. Her response was, “wait, you are trying to hawk legal aid to the Tea Party Congress?” She immediately called over her husband Steve Roberts, an accomplished Washington Journalist in his own right and said, “John, tell Steve what you are doing”. When I conveyed my new mission, they looked at each other and put their hands on my shoulders. “Good luck” was conveyed with sincerity tinged with pity.

A week or so later, I took a break between meetings and stopped at a soda machine in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building. As I was awaiting the descent of my beverage into the tray, someone walked up and was standing to my left. I glanced over and recognized David Brooks, distinguished op-ed journalist for the New York Times. I said hello and told him how much I enjoyed his work. He thanked me and asked me what I did, and when I told him he paused and asked two questions. “Aren’t you the guys that Reagan tried to get rid of?” After being assured we were still alive, he asked, “So how’s it going with these guys?” The implication and the tone were the same as I had experienced with Cokie and Steve.

Do you remember the classic Gary Larson cartoon of the two deer standing in the forest? One has a large bullseye on his back and the other deer says, “Hell of a birthmark, Hal”. Well, after these repetitive meetings and two chance encounters with Washington icons, I knew that my birthmark was showing and that the odds were insurmountable.

I had always known how to advocate a position with people who understood the need to preserve our history or make our records accessible to the American public. I knew how to discuss our mission with people who knew that to “preserve justice” was a constitutional guarantee debated, approved, and signed by our Founders. But talking about a mission with people who neither believed in governing nor in funding the basic requirements of governing, was a foreign experience. We were speaking a different language and to say that it was uncomfortable would be the understatement of the year.

These are the same people whose voices you hear today. Few that were there then are there now. But Jim Jordan, Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise and others are dropped from the same molds. Their younger colleagues are even more extreme versions of the model, and that has become the problem. If you don’t believe in government as the solution to anything. If you don’t have a platform, an agenda, or an ideology that you can articulate, you are a bomb with a flammable fuse.

This week we have seen the results of ego and blind ambition on one side and nihilism on the other side in a repetitive collision. No one cares about the institution of Congress, the sacred traditions and image of the House, or the necessities of continuity in governance.

But one practical fact remains. Without the election of a Speaker, no members will be sworn in, no committees will be formed, no rules will be approved, and no staff will be paid.

For those that say, this reflects how broken our system is, I shout NO! NO! NO! This reflects how broken the Republican Party is after the unprecedented assault of Donald John Trump. Kevin McCarthy has made his bed with the Devil, and we see the result this week.

I pray for a healthy two-party system in America. I can attest to its benefits. I can attest to its necessity for a functioning Republic. I pray for its restoration. I pray that Kevin McCarthy awakens to the fact that he is not smart enough to lead his caucus. I pray that the Republican Party in the House finds a leader that can organize a majority in the 118th Congress.

Do it for the House. Do it for the Nation. Do it for the People.


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