Prudence and Principle Needed on Capitol Hill
Immediately after becoming interim House speaker, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) ordered former House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to vacate their personal offices near the House floor. There is, of course, the standard gnashing of teeth among those who like their politics coated with a light dusting of fake civility.
I write “fake” deliberately; the wholly uncivil removal of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was made possible not by a bombastic, fractious group of eight Republican renegades but by the extreme partisanship of the entire House Democratic Conference.
Not a single Democrat voted to retain McCarthy as Speaker. While the GOP “Group of Eight” inaugurated political chaos in the name of conservative purity — so much for Edmund Burke’s belief that prudence is essential to true conservatism — their initiative would have been little more than a repulsive and puerile exercise in political self-display had not the Democrats voted as a bloc to wreak havoc on representative self-governance.
The Founders of our country believed the national legislature should be composed of the highest order of citizens, people whose maturity, character, good judgment, and life experience would enable them to make decisions beneficial to the whole country. For example, in Federalist Ten, James Madison wrote public judgment (or as he put it, “public views”) would be “refined and enlarged … by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial (selfish) considerations.” In other words, Members of the House and Senate would be persons not motivated by the heat of the moment, childish insistence, or ignorant rigidity, but the steady and serious consideration of the critical issues facing the country.
This kind of thoughtful, nation-over-party attitude was missing from the vote against McCarthy. On the Republican side, Matt Gaetz, who accused House GOP leaders of “groveling and bending knee to the lobbyists and special interests who own” them, has sought money from major Republican donors with aplomb and, in the 2020-2021 election cycle, received nearly $2.6 million from “large individual donors.” Mr. Pure has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.
Yet the larger issue is that delight with the chaos on the Republican side of the aisle surmounted Democrats’ concern that pressing decisions before the House would be delayed by the vacancy of the speaker’s chair. So, when Pelosi waxes indignant about the loss of her private office, it’s hard to feel much sympathy. Her lack of concern with the proper functioning of the people’s House is the much greater offense.
Many of the issues raised by critics of the McCarthy speakership are legitimate. The failure of both parties to deal with the national debt, annual deficits, the modernization of Social Security, a Pentagon budget inadequately reviewed in an era when our security is daily more and more at risk, and other key issues is aggravating beyond words.
But conservatives are not negotiating with themselves. Admittedly, the extreme liberalism of the Democratic party is both growing and hardening. Finding common ground with a party for whom abortion-on-demand is seen as the supreme good of public life and whose vision of the federal government is one of continuous expansion, intrusion, and expense is increasingly difficult.
True enough. But although principled compromise is becoming harder, it remains the highest political good. This might mean a more frequent unwillingness to bend, since more and more of the chief matters before policymakers involve fixed moral conviction. However, it should not mean that eruptive petulance is allowed to substitute for calm, firm, and principled resistance.
In his first letter to his young disciple Timothy, Paul writes that an elder/pastor must be “sober-minded,” “sensible,” and “self-controlled” (I Timothy 2:2). While these instructions are directed at spiritual leaders, they have a broader application to anyone in a position of leadership. These qualities are sadly lacking in public life today, but in an earlier generation, they were more valued. Writing of George Washington during the Second Continental Congress in 1775, another delegate said that Washington was “no ‘harum Starum’ (sic) ranting Swearing fellow” but “Sober, steady, & calm.”
Many of today’s governing authorities could take a lesson from Paul and Washington both. Yes, Kevin McCarthy’s leadership merited scrutiny, as does that of everyone who holds a prominent position. Whatever his failures, though, he deserved better than the foot-stomping, my-way-or-the-highway actions of Gaetz and his friends and the gleeful, vicious indifference of the House Democrats. So did the country.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.