After weeks of infighting, backstabbing and open hostility toward one another, House Republicans finally elected a Speaker, Trump-supporting Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La).
We don’t know if Speaker Johnson will have any more success corralling his conference than Speaker McCarthy did. As the voting wound down, one Republican member, Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), expressed his skepticism this way: “Frankly, it doesn’t matter who the Speaker is, because if we can’t govern as a group, as a conference, it doesn’t matter.”
One thing, however, is certain: the damage to the country. The chaos in the House this fall is just one more log on the fire of Americans’ growing cynicism about government — all of it.
A new Associated Press poll out in October finds a majority of adults have “hardly any confidence” in Congress. The mistrust extends to the scandal-ridden Supreme Court and other branches of government, too.
One of the biggest problems is that this lack of confidence is indiscriminate, and it’s easy to see why. Those of us who have the time and, frankly, the privilege of looking closely can see that it’s largely one party that is responsible for the highest-profile messes.
But most people don’t have that privilege. They have to get to the dentist, or the boss wants something by five o’clock, or the kids have a soccer game. All they see is headlines blaring “Chaos in Congress” or “Scandal at the Supreme Court.”
This leads to a loss of faith in the entire idea of government. And when that happens, people become convinced that the government can’t solve their problems. So, they get cynical and act accordingly — they don’t vote, or they vote for “disruptors.”
Like a snake eating its tail, it’s a destructive cycle that only hands more power to bad actors.
Right now, those bad actors in Congress are right-wingers who believe the government doesn’t work and are out to prove it. The Tea Party and its congressional successor the Freedom Caucus want to break government. They share a toxic view that the government does more harm than good, and they are not in Congress to solve people’s problems, but to use a “scorched-earth” strategy to hasten the demise of the federal government.
This is the time to remind ourselves how wrong that attitude is. When responsible adults are in charge, the government can and does do great things to improve people’s lives; history shows us it can.
There are the land-grant universities created under Abraham Lincoln’s administration, which helped democratize higher education and continue today.
There were Franklin Roosevelt’s public works programs that provided life-saving employment and rebuilt the economy during the Great Depression.
And there is the Biden administration’s infrastructure program, which continues to invest billions not just in roads and bridges but broadband internet, green energy facilities and much more.
I know this short list won’t be enough to restore every skeptic’s faith in government. What we need now is action. And in the immediate term, Congress has its assignments. It has to send aid to Israel and Ukraine.
And it has to avoid a government shutdown. A shutdown now would seal the deal for Americans who think government is useless. And while loss of public faith is bad enough, real pain would be felt in harm to the economy and to services people need.
It’s clear that our crisis of confidence in government goes beyond Congress. But House Republicans’ antics have made it worse, and now they have a responsibility to do something about it. We know the government can work when responsible people are leading.
We also know we only get a government as good as the one we vote into office. We are rightfully skeptical that House Republicans can do good, productive work on behalf of all of the American people; if they keep showing us they can’t, we have to vote them out.