Remodel the Barn, Don’t Destroy It


These days we are being constantly reminded of legendary former House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s ageless admonition that any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a real good carpenter to build one.

Rayburn’s insight is apropos as the nation’s agenda remains blocked by Republicans fighting among themselves over the election of a new Speaker. The former Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, was deposed on October 3 by a strange-bedfellows cabal of eight Republicans and 210 Democrats. The Republicans then nominated Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and it just took a day for him to accept his inevitable defeat by the full House.

Days later the next GOP nominee for Speaker, Ohio’s firebrand Jim Jordan discovered after two Floor votes that he, too, didn’t have the votes, short 20 and then 22 votes. The next chapter is being written as this is written. What will happen next will probably not be good.

Leaving the House Speaker-less and unable to perform very basic functions has produced yet another national crisis in governance with too little attention to its true scope and the potentially devastating consequences. The pundits and politicians have had a razor-sharp focus on the politics, the political intrigue, the diabolical behavior, and internecine warfare among the factions.

The bigger picture—what the country desperately needs, what the Congress desperately needs and what most Americans need—is written about and spoken about sometimes, but not often. The country needs governance; the Congress needs the will and courage to govern, and the people need a long intermission from the comic tragedy that is our partisan political system. And the world still needs our strength and stability. We used to be looked up to, but now we are looked down on.

The politicians who orchestrated this mess and the media that covered it, and in many respects fomented it, have made little mention of the national interest or the further damage done to the Republic and its promise of representative democracy.

“Yet the whole thing is so . . . below the country. It’s so without heightened meaning. It’s as if Julius Caesar were stabbed to death in the Forum by the Marx Brothers,” Peggy Noonan observed in the Wall Street Journal.

“What happened in the House this (last) week,” she wrote “was irresponsible and destructive, a classless move by classless people for low and shallow reasons. Finding a new speaker won’t be quick; it will be a painful, destructive winnowing that will make America look worse.”

What happened in the House was not about McCarthy’s record as Speaker or Matt Gaetz’ ego- driven antics, or the Republicans or the Democrats or President Joe Biden or the media. They are all, along with the rest of us, to blame for not seeing the forest for the trees, for looking in when they should have been looking out, for ignoring the crises swirling around the Capitol, our nation, and the globe. What are we doing? What have we done?

The Congress is broken. That is not at issue. What is at issue is whether it is irretrievably so. Political analyst and pollster Dave Winston uses the analogy of someone looking at a house and seeing that it needs new windows and a paint job but does not see that it is on fire. This is not new. Winston has used that analogy for a decade or more.

Dumping the Speaker has led to more fist fights among Republicans, some of whom are bent on snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. They have been disruptive and destructive with no plan for America’s future and no realizable agenda at a time when the nation needs unity and yes—I dare say it in front of the children—bipartisan consensus. The road there has been closed and must be reopened. Congress is broken because it cannot act. It cannot solve problems or even generate solutions let alone get them enacted. Congress is broken because it is paralyzed by extreme anarchical partisan politics that can destroy but cannot rebuild. The Jordan losses have come from both the far right and the center.

The Republicans who voted to dump McCarthy and continued to block governance were dishonored by their own hypocrisy. They claimed to be the only vanguard for immigration reform, the restoration of regular order, cutting government spending, preserving defense spending, and a raft of other priorities, but at every turn they stunted progress on national priorities and Republican’s agenda holding fast and hard to unachievable notions directly antithetical to sensible solutions.

The events of recent weeks make you wonder, too, how Democrats can cling to the idiocy that they voted in lockstep to dump McCarthy because they did not want to get in the middle of a Republican family feud. They did interfere and would have either way. They were integral to the outcome.

Democratic House Leader Hakeem Jeffries wrote in a magnanimous if not disingenuous Washington Post op-ed after the McCarthy ouster that “Over the past several weeks, when it appeared likely that a motion to vacate the office of speaker was forthcoming, House Democrats repeatedly raised the issue of entering into a bipartisan governing coalition with our Republican counterparts, publicly as well as privately,” he wrote.

The question Jeffries did not answer is the price he put on his offers.

I would argue that both Democrats and Republicans missed a lot of opportunities over the years to engage in bipartisanship. I believe it was Thomas Edison who said opportunity is missed by most because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. Leaders in both parties have passed it by many times, although they did bite the bullet and vote to increase the debt limit and pass a continuing resolution to stave off government shutdowns. McCarthy did more. He didn’t bite the bullet he took the bullet that ended his life as the highest ranking official of the US Congress.

The Jeffries op-ed called for a “bipartisan governing coalition,” the operative word being coalition not bipartisan. There is a world of difference between creating a coalition government and bipartisan cooperation to fulfill the nation’s agenda. For the Democratic Leader to be credible in his magnanimity, he would have to spell out in detail the realistic terms of a coalition government. Forming a coalition government, as opposed to reaching bipartisan consensus on some issues, would require a complete make-over of the majority-minority relationship and all the precedents and history that entails. Maybe that is what is needed in the wake of what is becoming perpetual congressional dysfunction, but it would be a significant and presumably time-consuming undertaking, requiring a high degree of trust in the motivations of both sides, something the Democrats and Republicans have made clear they have none.

Jeffries was probably correct when he said McCarthy refused to work with Democrats. It is wrong to refuse to work with your adversaries—not enemies—under our system of government and particularly when governing is badly and urgently needed.

Both sides knew there would come a time when leaders would have to exercise political courage to get the House running again, even if it meant putting their jobs on the line. Quiet bipartisan discussions should have begun January 2, by moderates on both sides, with the blessing of the leadership on both sides. Apparently, the bipartisan Problem Solvers group tried but failed. They should try and try again.

A few other observations:

  • It would help to sort out the politics of our political and social gridlock so the American people understand better how decisions are made and how they can influence them. I’ve co-authored a book with Jerry Climer to get that process started. It will be available soon.
  • The media could contribute much to their education by providing more pragmatic information about the new realities of governance and making public policy; about the core of our public discontent and tribal alienation; more about the mechanics of legislating and far less of the rantings of the antagonists, who seem to be more in the dark about how laws are made than the general public. There are members of the Freedom Caucus, for example, who have no visible ideology, philosophical grounding, vision, or masterplan for the country. They are not conservatives or even libertarians. I call them anarchical nomads like their mentor, Donald Trump. There is a mirror image of that situation on the Democratic side where there seems to be disintegration in the meaning of the political isms—centrism liberalism, progressivism, and socialism.
  • Moderate members of Congress, conservatives and liberals, those who have an abiding commitment to governing responsibly and believe their oath of office requires that from them must come together and lead themselves with a minimal of dealmaking and a maximum of policy making.

Republicans and Democrats must claw their way up and out of the hole they have dug. The damage that is being done may prove much bigger and more egregious than anyone ever imagined if the citizenry doesn’t first set the example and provide greater incentive for the hole diggers to begin again governing on their behalf. For We The People, that will take more knowledge and empowerment than we have now.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.