Politics & Policy

Boehner, Ryan, and Accountability

Some grounding words not always heard from politicians.

Clearwater, Fla. — “Be ready for the moment of your death. Are you ready?”

Get right with God was Fr. Charles Leke’s message at the House of Prayer here last Tuesday morning. If coffee hadn’t fully woken you up yet, his sermon might have accomplished what caffeine didn’t. Many — if not most — of us won’t get advance warning of the day and time.

Repent of your sins — “for what I have done and what I have failed to do.”

“Do it now. Do not procrastinate.”

As a good shepherd does, Fr. Leke was pointing us in the right eternal direction, even if it meant disturbing a beautiful Sunshine State day with harsh mortal reality.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming. But Ash Wednesday, that somber, sober day on which so many of us look as if we forgot to wash our faces after cleaning a chimney, is on my mind.

When John Boehner began his tenure as Speaker of the House — the second Catholic to hold that post — he took a penitential posture in his opening speech.

“In the Catholic faith, we enter into a season of service by having ashes marked on our foreheads. The ashes remind us that life in all its forms is fragile — our time on this Earth, fleeting. As the ashes are delivered, we hear those humbling words: ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’”

He explained: “The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker. After all, this is the people’s House. This is their Congress. It’s about them, not us. What they want is a government that is honest, accountable, and responsive to their needs. A government that respects individual liberty, honors our heritage, and bows before the public it serves.”

He knew the job would be an uphill climb, one that would require the kind of humility — not to mention serenity and wisdom — that politicians aren’t necessarily famous for.

That was 2011 and the 112th Congress. Now, almost midway through the 114th, approaching 2016, Paul Ryan is, as I write, reluctantly about to give in and accept the job (unless something else totally unexpected transpires!). As Ryan has watched Speaker Boehner’s thankless struggle over the years, his lack of enthusiasm is understandable.

And so he set some conditions. Among them: “First, we need to move from being an opposition party to a proposition party. Because we think the nation is on the wrong path, we have a duty to show the right one. Our next Speaker needs to be a visionary one.”

Sounds like leadership. That’s good to have in leaders, we’d likely all agree. It can’t be taken for granted.

And, he said to his Republican colleagues, “We, as a conference, should unify now, and not after a divisive Speaker election.”

Ryan echoed some of Boehner’s 2011 sentiments. As Boehner put it on taking up the post, “the people we serve do not feel that we are delivering on the job they hired us to do. We have become the problem. If my colleagues entrust me to be Speaker, I want us to become the solution.”

I suspect that, given Congress’s abysmal public-opinion ratings, most probably found themselves nodding their heads when Ryan said: “People don’t care about blame. They don’t care about effort. They care about results. Results that are meaningful. Results that are measurable. Results that make a difference in their daily lives.”

Two weeks ago I came here to Clearwater for a two-week session of Bible study (St. Ignatius of Loyola–style, in keeping with the Spiritual Exercises Pope Francis echoes daily in his morning and other homilies) and more rigorous prayer regimes than the average weekday is known for at the Cenacle of Divine Providence School of Spiritual Direction (more here). I headed here, the begging-Paul-Ryan-to-run-for-Speaker business had just started in earnest, after California’s Kevin McCarthy took himself out of the running. Little did I know things wouldn’t be settled as I checked in for my return flight to New York. The morning after Ryan’s conditions speech, my first assignment for the day was Philippians 2: 1–4. St. Paul writes: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.”

Doesn’t exactly make you think of Congress, does it? And yet, while Congress isn’t going to be run by the Good Book, for a body that overwhelmingly welcomed Pope Francis for his unprecedented appearance before a joint session just last month, a little inspiration from it could be a healthy thing right about now.

I’m reminded of John Boehner’s favorite pep-talk mantra: ‘If you do the right things for the right reasons, good things will happen.’

During his speech to Congress, the pope said: “Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”

He continued: “The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”

I’m reminded of John Boehner’s favorite pep-talk mantra: “If you do the right things for the right reasons, good things will happen.” And, when he gave the commencement address at my alma mater, the Catholic University of America, in 2011 he again said: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and “When it’s all said and done, we are but mere mortals doing God’s work here on Earth.” That’s accountability. That’s living life as a steward of the greatest gift of life. Even our politics should be in service to this.

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