Politics & Policy

Squeaker of the House

Speaker John Boehner opens the first session of Congress for 2013. (Mark Wilson/Getty)
John Boehner’s successor inherits a diminished role.

Newt Gingrich, who is not above cultivating a little bit of mythology about himself, used to say that when he was a youngster considering a life in politics, he didn’t want to grow up to be president of the United States — he grew up wanting to be speaker of the House. Which he did, achieving a measure of modest but genuine success in the role: Those weren’t Clinton budget surpluses, but Gingrich surpluses. (Transitory though they were.) Gingrich has a weakness for thinking of himself in world-historical terms, and he may in fact find his final repose in an interesting footnote: the last speaker of the House to be a figure of any significance.

And, of course, he ended up wanting to be president.

Speaker of the House John Boehner has announced his intention to retire, which has those members of the House Republican leadership who are fool enough to want the job — which is to say, the members of the House Republican leadership — grasping at his gavel. The plot of the Shakespearean succession drama is fixed as the stars: The entertainment wing of the conservative movement prepares to rain brimstone upon Republican whip Kevin McCarthy, the presumptive front-runner among House leaders, or Paul Ryan, a conservative hero until the day before yesterday now cast into the outer darkness for various heresies related to his being an elected lawmaker rather than the host of a radio program. Expect Louie Gohmert or another conservative standard-bearer to shine for a moment before opinion settles on some disappointment or another, and expect the vast majority of the American electorate to go on not knowing who the speaker is or what he does regardless of who is elected.

On the subject of Representative Gohmert, his statement following the speaker’s resignation is on point: “Due in part to the massive shift in power away from the most accountable representatives of the people to a president and five judges, we have needed leadership with vision for the future that did not continue the downhill slide.”

#share#As Gohmert notes without quite saying so, these United States are in the process of transforming the form of their union government from that of a democratic republic to that of a unitary autocratic administrative state. Barack Obama and other progressives have hastened that transformation in no small part because they consider the American constitutional order in purely instrumental terms rather than as a good in and of itself. Sometimes the constitutional order serves progressive ends and sometimes it constrains them, which is why President Wilson despised the Constitution and President Obama simply ignores it when he believes it necessary, adopting as he has — with rather less fuss than one might have expected — a Gaullist rule-by-decree model. The familiar ratchet effect is in operation: The Left in power expands the state, particularly the executive, and the Right in power does not reverse the turn, in part because conservative politicians like power, too, in part because reversing those expansions is difficult, and in part because even if conservatives win the fight there’s not much juice in it.

As my colleague Charles C. W. Cooke points out, the lack of an American king and an American prime minister has not prevented the traditional English contest between crown and parliament from sneaking into American politics. And the crown is winning.

The waxing of the president and the consequent waning of Congress is a result of the deep psychological structure of mass democracy on the American scale, probably an inevitable one.

This isn’t only a matter of executive opportunism and legislative sloth. The waxing of the president and the consequent waning of Congress is a result of the deep psychological structure of mass democracy on the American scale, probably an inevitable one. American democracy was born in the New England town-hall meeting and in state assemblies, relatively intimate venues where following the operations of government was non-cumbrous. A population of more than 300 million with worldwide interests is a very different sort of thing. From the very beginning, the mere scale of the American project ensured that most Americans would find it incomprehensible: How many Americans at the time really understood that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton went into the Philadelphia Convention plotting to abolish their government and set up a new one? How many can identify the main points of contention between Senator Cruz and Senator McConnell?

Our Congress manages perversely to be a little too big and a little too small at the same time: With 535 representatives and senators, it presents a large cast of characters to keep track of (The Wire tested our national intellectual limits on that front), but each of those 435 House members represents on average more than 700,000 constituents, ten times as many people as the typical British MP. Senator Cruz and Senator Boxer have between them about as many constituents as François Hollande. Strange as it is to contemplate, Jimmy Carter governed five times as many people as Julius Caesar.

On the subject of famous J.C.s, the visit of Pope Francis to the United States illustrates a similar phenomenon. Unlike Islam or Buddhism, the Catholic Church is for purposes of public consumption personified in one man — not Jesus Christ, but the pope. Catholics account for only about one out of six people walking the Earth, but the pope is a figure of fascination for many more than that. Most people, including most Catholics, don’t really know very much about what the Church teaches or how it operates, but they know who the pope is, and how they feel about him. Most people, including most Americans, don’t know very much about what the American government does or how it operates, but they know who the president is, and how they feel about him. Popes are consulted about public-policy matters in which they have no particular expertise, and presidents are expected to have opinions on moral questions, economic questions, military questions, and scientific questions beyond their ken. Thus governance is transformed from an undramatic but necessary administrative process into a heroic quest.

#related#President Obama even seems to have incorporated his own version of an infallibility doctrine.

The president did not come to dominate American politics to this degree because the Constitution invests him with such princely powers, or because some law was changed somewhere along the way that set the presidency on its current course of metastasis. The president first dominated psychologically and culturally, and then came to dominate politically and legislatively. Ironically enough, Ronald Reagan — the great crusader against expansive government — had such an expansive and attractive personality that he left his successors a presidency much larger and more vivid than the one he inherited from Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. (Ford’s modest conception of himself and his role produced a presidential quip for the ages: “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln.”) When they write the history of American democracy, we’ll be obliged to admit the embarrassing truth that we lost it because it’s so much easier to pay attention to one man than to a congress of them.

Speaker Boehner’s successor inherits a diminished role in a diminished institution, and it isn’t clear that there is much of anything he will be able to do to help the national legislature recover its self-respect, which lags so far behind its self-importance. Congress no longer has the power to return the president — and the presidency — to its proper role. That power, too, is now in the hands of the president, which is why it is unlikely that our national slide into autocracy will be reversed until the current political equilibrium is disturbed, which is to say until certain danger encounters uncertain danger.

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