What Is Governing, and What Is Not

In late September we were treated to a show by the far-right Chaos Caucus of the Republican Party led by Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene. This nearly devolved into an actual government shutdown, causing misery among people who depend on government employment. Columnist David Brooks – himself a conservative Republican — called Gaetz and his group nihilistic performance artists.

What is motivating these disrupters? The charitable explanation is that they sought some policy objective they couldn’t achieve in the normal way, although their objective changed from day to day and was never well explained. The less charitable explanation is that they sought nothing more than camera time. A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal pointed out that Gaetz’s audience and priorities are different than the rank and file Republican, “Gaetz is going for attention, TV interviews, fundraising.”

In early October a subset of disrupters caused the removal of Speaker Kevin McCarthy for committing the sin of working with Democrats to pass bi-partisan funding legislation. This is the first time in our history a Speaker has been removed. Perhaps McCarthy deserved it because his word has been like sand between your fingers.  But the whole episode suggests that House Republicans can’t even govern themselves, much less help with governing the nation.

It is remarkable that the Democrats in the House are not the target of the obstructionists. It is their own party. Most Republican House members, including their leaders, didn’t want to shut down the government because they knew there would be a political price to pay and their party would pay it. And most in the House Republican caucus are furious with Gaetz and his disrupters for upending McCarthy.

It seems like any positive legislative proposal these days must endure a gauntlet filled with warlords and highwaymen ready to exact a ransom. We can all agree that obstructionist grandstanding and political extortion is not governing. But what type of governing behavior do we have a right to expect from elected officials of both parties?

The answer is squarely in front of us. This country is supposed to operate on majoritarian principles. The exceptions are the minority protections carved out in the Bill of Rights and the design of the U.S. Senate, which gives tiny states the same representation as enormous ones.

Legislation should move, or not move, based on whether there is a majority of legislators supporting it. The House of Representatives has 435 members, while the Chaos Caucus is only 10 representing a mere 2% of the population. If a legislator isn’t in the majority on an issue, then her task is to persuade others to change their views, not throw a wrench into the works because she can’t get her way.

Political hostage taking and obstructionism is simply not acceptable governing behavior. Temper tantrums should get no respect.

The hostage taking is not limited to the House of Representatives. It is also taking place in the Senate and even in the Jefferson County Commission.  Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville has held up 300 military promotions for weeks because he is trying to force a policy change at the Pentagon. Tuberville, of course, can’t claim to be governing. Nobody thinks his one-man blockade is a great idea and his own party will soon put a stop to it.

The extortionists and performance artists on the national stage have gotten so much attention that now some Jefferson County Commissioners have copied their behavior. Two out of four Commissioners showed up for business at the September 21, 28 and October 5 meetings. The other two – Tricia Jackson and Jennifer Krouse – made themselves absent to deny the Commission a quorum. They claimed this was in protest of an abuse of power by Commission President Stolipher, who failed to put two items on the agenda they wanted. No County business was transacted because Jackson and Krouse didn’t get their way. That was really mature, wasn’t it?

Good governance can’t be defined by referring to a particular policy outcome, say tightened border security or the enactment of an environmental law. Historically, the policy objectives of both the left and the right have been achieved through good governance. That is because good governance is a process, not a particular outcome. It is about respect for institutions. Good governance is building, not destroying. It is about persuasion and coalition building, not extortion.

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