It took barely five minutes for an influential Republican to spell out what must happen if this country is to see any meaningful progress in public policy over the next 15 months and, quite likely, over the next five years.
That Republican was Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the self-described reluctant candidate for speaker of the U.S. House. His prescription for progress was stunningly direct, without being confrontational, and stunningly succinct.
I’m not writing as a fan, nor as a critic, of Rep. Ryan. This isn’t about what he has done in the past or what he might do in the future. It’s about a brief moment in our nation’s very recent history . . . a five-minute speech.
Let me lay a couple of my convictions on the table at the outset.
I believe that the job of elected officials is to read the signs of the times, the attitudes of the people, and the capacity of the government and its various partners and adversaries. Then, it is the job of elected officials to act to meet the needs of the times, consistent with the sentiments of the people and the capacity of the government in which they serve.
Anything else that elected officials do, whether for personal gain, political advantage or fun, is fine (as long as it is legal and moral). But nothing else rises to the level of our primary responsible to assess conditions and to act in the interest of the community, the state or the nation we serve.
That commitment to our primary responsibility would appear to have been sorely lacking, both in our state capital here in Florida and in our nation’s capital.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. I’m not picky. Choose whomever you’d like to blame.
The fact remains that the conduct of both our state Legislature and Congress has been marked by a noteworthy lack of focus on the need to get things done . . . most especially, getting a budget done. It took two tries for the state Legislature to finish the job this year (and then have nearly a half-billion dollars cut from the budget by the governor, so no unified priorities there). Congress still is operating primarily on continuing resolutions, punting and punting and punting again, rather than setting a course for the investment of our hard-earned dollars for the public good.
What Rep. Ryan did in five minutes was spell out what he believes is the present condition and what must happen for Congress to do what it ought to be doing.
First, as to the signs of the times, Rep. Ryan described them quite simply as “dire.” One might argue with that assessment; perhaps it overstates the degree to which there is a present or impending crisis. I think the description is entirely apt for the condition of the Republican Conference and prescient about the possible condition of the Republican brand coming into the 2016 elections. I’ll add that, while I’m not convinced that present conditions are dire economically, socially or in our relations internationally, we clearly face serious challenges. There’s also is a nagging sense that we are not far from falling into dire straits in one or all of these areas, depending on future events and on the actions (or inaction) of our leaders.
Then, Rep. Ryan got down to the essentials for the Republican Conference that are, equally, essentials for the effectiveness of the House, Congress as a whole, and our nation’s government.
- The Republican Conference must move from being “an opposition party” to “a proposition party.” It’s not enough to object, nor to attempt to repeal policies that one does not like, if there is a need for the government to act (independently or with its various partners). Proposals and counterproposals create conditions for negotiation and compromise (which is not a dirty word in a democracy). Simple opposition creates an essential juxtaposition of competing forces; someone must win, and someone else must lose. That’s not the best way for a representative democracy to function. Indeed, it is unlikely to function at all under such conditions.
- The rules of the House must change, both to allow members to be more effective and to allow leaders to lead. The persistent struggle between Speaker Boehner and the members of the Freedom Caucus, and the ability of this minority faction to roil the Republican Conference whenever they choose, reflect elements of House rules that tend toward making the institution less effective. When leaders cannot lead, even for a time, without the constant threat of being deposed, a legislature (or a nation) cannot expect good governance. It’s why most of our elected offices have specified terms. While you’re in office, you’re in.
- The Republican Conference must find a way to come together, now. They must come together in fact and not merely in words. Their common ground must not be a mere papering over of divisions after someone survives a bruising fight for the Speakership.
Any observer of Congress over these last few years will note the extent to which the Republican Conference could not make and keep commitments to anyone. This made Speaker Boehner powerless to negotiate with the Senate or the president, at least until Congress was on the brink of disaster. On the brink, it often was the collaboration of the minority party that was essential to action . . . an interesting model of governance, one with elements to commend it, but not the way the House can be led sustainably in the present political climate.
Rep. Ryan’s five minutes cut through the smoke of backroom bargains and political posturing in a remarkable way. Now, we must wait to see who was listening.