No doubt the warring factions will resume battle shortly in the United States Congress, if they haven’t already.
But occassionally, we get fleeting “West Wing-style” glimpses of what is possible, even if they’re usually mere rhetorical flourishes. It’s not as if Congress doesn’t give the cynic plenty of ammunition. In so stating, we ignore for the moment The Atlantic’s onetime assertion that West Wing is a terrible guide to American democracy.
Today provided one of those moments, though, when the U.S. House of Representatives elected a new speaker of the house.
It was a remarkable speech Paul Ryan gave today.
It’s not till you hold this gavel and stand in this spot and look out and see all 435 members of the House—as if all of America was sitting right in front of you. It’s not till then that you feel it: the weight of responsibility, the gravity of the moment.
And standing here, I cannot help but think of something Harry Truman once said. The day after Franklin Roosevelt died and Truman became president, he told a group of reporters: “If you ever pray, pray for me now. . . . When they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
We all should feel that way. A lot is on our shoulders. So if you ever pray, pray for each other— Republicans for Democrats, Democrats for Republicans. And I don’t mean pray for a conversion. Pray for a deeper understanding, because—when you’re up here, you see it so clearly—wherever you come from, whatever you believe, we are all in the same boat.
I never thought I’d be the speaker. But early in my life, I wanted to serve in the House. I thought the place was exhilarating—because here, you could make a difference. If you had a good idea and worked hard, you could make it happen. You could improve people’s lives. To me, the House represented the best of America: the boundless opportunity to do good.
But let’s be frank: The House is broken. We are not solving problems. We are adding to them. And I am not interested in laying blame. We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean. Neither the members nor the people are satisfied with how things are going. We need to make some changes, starting with how the House does business.
We need to let every member contribute—not once they have earned their stripes, but right now. I come at this job as a two-time committee chair. The committees should retake the lead in drafting all major legislation. If you know the issue, you should write the bill. Open up the process. Let people participate. And they might change their tune. A neglected minority will gum up the works. A respected minority will work in good faith. Instead of trying to stop the majority, they might try to become the majority.
In other words, we need to return to regular order. Now, I know that sounds like process. But it’s actually a matter of principle. We are the body closest to the people. Every two years, we face the voters—and sometimes face the music. But we do not echo the people. We represent them. We are supposed to study up and do the homework that they cannot do. So when we do not follow regular order—when we rush to pass bills a lot of us do not understand—we are not doing our job. Only a fully functioning House can truly represent the people.
And if there were ever a time for us to step up, this would be that time. America does not feel strong anymore because the working people of America do not feel strong anymore. I’m talking about the people who mind the store and grow the food and walk the beat and pay the taxes and raise the family. They do not sit in this House. They do not have fancy titles. But they are the people who make this country work, and this House should work for them.
Here’s the problem. They’re working hard. They’re paying a lot. They are trying to do right by their families. And they are going nowhere fast. They never get a raise. They never get a break. But the bills keep piling up—and the taxes and the debt. They are working harder than ever to get ahead. Yet they are falling further behind. And they feel robbed—cheated of their birthright. They are not asking for any favors. They just want a fair chance. And they are losing faith that they will ever get it. Then they look at Washington, and all they see is chaos.
What a relief to them it would be if we finally got our act together—what a weight off their shoulders. How reassuring it would be if we actually fixed the tax code, put patients in charge of their health care, grew our economy, strengthened our military, lifted people out of poverty, and paid down the debt. At this point, nothing could be more inspiring than a job well done. Nothing could stir the heart more than real, concrete results.
The cynics will scoff and say it’s not possible. But you better believe we are going to try. We will not duck the tough issues. We will take them head on. We are going to do all we can so working people get their strength back and people not working get their lives back. No more favors for the few. Opportunity for all—that is our motto.
I often talk about the need for a vision. I’m not sure I ever said what I meant. We solve problems here—yes. We create a lot of them too. But at bottom, we vindicate a way of life. We show by our work that free people can govern themselves. They can solve their own problems. They can make their own decisions. They can deliberate, collaborate, and get the job done. We show self-government is not only more efficient and more effective; it is more fulfilling. In fact, we show it is that struggle, that hard work, the very achievement itself that makes us free.
That is what we do here. And we will not always agree—not all of us, not all of the time. But we should not hide our disagreements. We should embrace them. We have nothing to fear from honest differences honestly stated. If you have ideas, let’s hear them. I believe a greater clarity between us can lead to a greater charity among us.
And there is every reason to have hope. When the first speaker took the gavel, he looked out at a room of 30 people, representing a nation of 3 million. Today, as I look out at you, we represent a nation of 300 million. So when I hear people say America does not have it—we are done, we are spent—I do not believe it. I believe, with every fiber of my being, we can renew the America Idea. Now, our task is to make us all believe.
My friends, you have done me a great honor. The people of this country have done all of us a great honor. Now, let’s prove ourselves worthy of it. Let’s seize the moment. Let’s rise to the occasion. And when we are done, let us say we left the people—all the people—more united, happy, and free. Thank you.
Related: Westminster Forum: Jennifer Lawless on young people and politics (MPR News Presents)