The thing that struck me Friday when House Speaker John Boehner announced his upcoming resignation next month was how many times during his brief, departing remarks he referred to the chamber he leads as the “institution.”
Said Boehner, who sang and laughed, who got a bit choked up but who did not shed a tear: ” My first job as speaker is to protect the institution ... it has become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution. . . this isn’t about me, it is about the people and the institution ... it’s been an honor to serve in this institution.”
The 435-member U.S. House of Representatives is now serving in the first session of the 114th Congress. It has suffered wars, indignities and scandals, but it stands. The official website of the House links to a history of the body and notes that Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, of Pennsylvania, was elected the first speaker April 1, 1789.
According to the site, the charge of the office is to “act as leader of the House and combines several roles: the institutional role of presiding officer and administrative head of the House, the partisan role of leader of the majority party in the House, and the representative role of an elected member of the House. The speaker of the House is second in line to succeed the president, after the vice president.”
Speaker Joseph G. Cannon, of Illinois, noted during his tenure (1903 to 1911) that “ ... I venture to say that, taken as a whole, the House is sound at heart; nowhere else will you find such a ready appreciation of merit and character, in few gatherings of equal size is there so little jealousy and envy ... The men who have led the House, whose names have become a splendid tradition to their successors, have gained prominence not through luck or by mere accident. They had ability, at least in some degree; but more than that they have had character.”
I don’t have to wonder how we got from merit and character to the modern “prolonged leadership turmoil.” The in-party criticism has been constant. Since Friday, Democrats including President Obama have had kinder things to say about the speaker than people in his own caucus. I think it is because some of the people we have been sending to Washington have forgotten why they are there — to make progress. The two chambers are in fact institutions to which they serve — bigger than them, or any sum of their divisive parts.
Since we, as of late, have allowed people in Congress who would expose their private parts on social media, misuse funds or influence, or call the president a liar during a live telecast State of the Union, I am afraid we are getting the kind of civil discourse our lowered expectations of “the institution” deserve.
I have no problem that factions within a caucus debate and disagree. But why must some stoop to dishonoring the institution by plotting against their own leadership with counter-productive blather? Vote in or vote out the leadership in that secret ballot. Spare us the soiled, spoiled screaming matches and finger-wagging dissent that spills out into the hallways and before the cameras.
Spare me the tantrums and threats to shut down the government. Your job is to keep it and the lines of communication open, and civil. Your job is to get something done — not undone.
Like him or not, that’s what John Boehner attempted as speaker. Though he certainly practiced politics, he did not in the end buy in to many of the impossible ideological agendas he had to suffer. One way or the other, he had reached the end.
The next person to occupy his chair ought to have an appreciation for an office that is second in line to the presidency, and whose first job is to serve the people while protecting the “institution” — perhaps from itself.