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Will American Politicians Ever Return to Prioritizing Solving Crises?

Will American Politicians Ever Return to Prioritizing Solving Crises?


Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

There have always been Members of Congress who had principles not just which guided their votes. There were usually times, however, where the nation’s interest transcended political philosophy. It would be reasonable to assume that an elected representative would recognize the need to place his own health as well as that of his colleagues ahead of his political beliefs.

Knowing that the Senate was about to pass the $2.0 trillion coronavirus stimulus/bailout bill unanimously, why would a Member of Congress deem it necessary to force a quorum of the House of Representatives to return to Washington to force a voice vote in the House.  Representative Thomas Massie (R-Ky) not only endangered his own life but potentially those of his colleagues who needed to return to the Capitol.  Rather than passing the Senate bill by unanimous consent—requiring only two Members to be present–Massie threatened a maneuver, which to avoid a protracted delay, necessitated the presence of a quorum to defeat the bill. While the final resolution was never in doubt, this absurd parliamentary maneuvering by Massie underscored the depths to which American politics has descended.

Curiously, negotiations over the bill in the Senate had demonstrated what can be achieved if Members fight over a bill in a partisan yet constructive manner. In relatively quick fashion the Senators resolved their differences and even secured the White House’s acquiescence as they passed the bill and sent it to the House.

While the nation struggles with the most devastating extraordinary health challenge at least since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, Congressman Massie decided to make a principled stand while the entire nation watched. While eventually he did receive widespread rebuke from numerous quarters, it is unlikely that his voters in Kentucky will cast him out in November for fiddling while their country was operating on life-support.

Massie’s actions, however, speak to the very sad state of politics in the nation. America has witnessed partisan fights in Congress since its creation, but at the end of the day the national interest almost always won. For example:

*President Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to pack the Supreme Court failed largely because a Democratic Congress would not acquiesce with the machinations of a president from their own party.

*The Selective Service Act of 1940 only passed the House of Representatives by one vote.

*President Eisenhower succeeded in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1957 only because Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson rounded up the votes for passage despite serious objection of members within his own Democratic party.

Conflict resolution and compromise formerly ruled the day, but no longer. Former Republican House Speaker John Boehner resigned from Congress largely because he could not endure the toxicity of today’s congressional politics. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s efforts to try to move the political process back on track have been dismissed. Today it is intense partisan rivalry which has engulfed Washington and dominated the political process over the past three years.

As the nation is fighting a horrific health pandemic, politics is driving the effort to fight the virus. Massie’s demand for a House voice vote was only an absurd grandstanding for his libertarian principles. Between now and November, however, this style will likely intensify.

America needs a voice today like Lincoln’s in 1865 when he called up the country “to bind up the nation’s wounds” or even Gerald Ford plea after Watergate to put “our long national nightmare behind us.” The ugliness of American politics beginning at the top is undermining the hope of the people that politicians care about the health of the American people.

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