Column: Boehner's cause to cry
WASHINGTON -- No wonder John Boehner wept. The speaker of the House, the Catholic son of a tavern owner, had not only fulfilled the dream of having the pontiff address Congress -- he must have been thinking it might be among his last official act...
WASHINGTON - No wonder John Boehner wept.
The speaker of the House, the Catholic son of a tavern owner, had not only fulfilled the dream of having the pontiff address Congress - he must have been thinking it might be among his last official acts.
Who could not be struck, listening to Francis’ stirring description of the role of the lawmaker, by the stark gulf between the papal ideal and the ugly, partisan reality of the chamber over which Boehner presides?
“Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation,” Francis said, as the speaker’s eyes welled and he wiped away tears. “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.”
The common good - what a quaint notion in modern-day Washington. Francis used the phrase six times in his address to Congress, about the creation of jobs, the protection of the environment and, most notably, the practice of politics.
“Politics,” he said, is “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. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.”
Yet as the pope’s comment suggested, sacrifice - along with its cousin, compromise - are not virtues often or easily practiced in the nation’s capital. Neither are some of the other papal attributes, such as patience and humility.
This has long been, but has in recent years become even more, a city of partisan divisiveness and egotistical jockeying for position. In Catholic terms, faith, hope and charity are overwhelmed, on both sides, by political self-interest; prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude give way to stiff-necked insistence on ideological purity over practical achievement. In religion, purity is to be lauded; in politics, it is a hindrance to good works.
But Boehner tried - despite a bickering, back-stabbing caucus that would have made Moses thankful that he only had the disbelieving, poorly behaved children of Israel to contend with. Francis compared Congress’ work to that of Moses, symbolizing “the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation.”
Unity is not a word that anyone would apply to the 114th Congress, or indeed, its recent predecessors. House Republicans once had to wait 40 years in the desert of the minority before entering the promised land. Unlike the ancient Israelites, whose time in the wilderness imbued them with the necessary maturity and faith, House Republicans took power and continued to behave like petulant children, especially after retaking the majority for a second time in 2010 and installing Boehner as speaker.
The Ohio Republican may be no Moses, but he contended - at times with the patience of Job - with an unruly caucus defiantly oblivious to basic mathematical facts, like the need for 218 votes in the House and, more often than not, 60 votes in the Senate. Constantly, Boehner found himself caught between political reality, with the concomitant need to compromise, and the ideological inflexibility of a growing share of his caucus. “Mother Teresa is a saint now,” an exasperated Boehner said last year, “but if Congress wanted to make her a saint, and attach that to the debt ceiling, we probably couldn’t get 218 votes for it.”
Sure, there were moments - as when he allowed his party to shut down the government for two weeks in 2013 - when Boehner’s behavior fell far short of heroic. Sure, his resignation may have occurred one step ahead of the right-wing firing squad, with more than 30 Republicans threatening a no-confidence vote.
Still, Boehner’s surprise announcement has the dual effect of avoiding a bloody leadership fight and averting an imminent government shutdown. House Republicans will now vote for a short-term spending bill that does not include defunding Planned Parenthood.
That peace is apt to be fleeting. Witness conservative crowing over Boehner’s departure. Consider that Boehner’s successor, whether California Republican Kevin McCarthy or someone else, will inherit the same intractable situation. Think about the needs of the common good that remain unaddressed.
The soon-to-be-former speaker isn’t the only one with cause to weep.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is email@example.com .