In much of the coverage over the confusion now engulfing the House Republican caucus on Capitol Hill, history–as is often the case–has been cast aside, even when it might do some real good in helping the majority party get itself together. Or, at the very least, remind Members of the House why their positions exist at all, and therefore what sort of leadership they should seek. After all, they’ve been at this thing since Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania was elected the first Speaker in 1789, so it should not seem as if it’s a novel question. Yet, for some reason, it does.
Perhaps that’s because the way in which both chambers of Congress are supposed to do their business–or, more to the point, the people’s business–has changed dramatically over the last century or so. The question of “What Would Henry Clay Do?” is, in an important sense, a moot one, as the Congress in which he served as the first Speaker of any real influence, beginning in 1811, doesn’t exist anymore. That’s mostly due to the fact that the Constitution is pretty silent about how Congress should work, stating nothing more than that “the House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.” [Art. I, sec. 2, cl. 5] That’s it. Everything else–the Majority leader, Minority leader, committee structure, committee membership, whose bills get considered and when, etc.–are, in a very real sense, parliamentary fictions, and relatively recent ones at that, created mostly in the 20th century to embed the two-party system in American political life. The Speaker doesn’t even have to be a Member of the House of Representatives, didn’t serve on a committee of the House until 1858, and he or she certainly doesn’t have to be a product of a partisan system created to, essentially, perpetuate that system.
Harkening back to Henry Clay, or any of the “Founders” or other celebrated historical leaders, wouldn’t do any good to the vast majority of today’s politicians or pundits, who otherwise spend their time fawning over their august political ancestors in print, online, and on television. That’s mainly because they really don’t know that much about them and, therefore, what guidance America’s historical experience might practically provide. Just look at one of the current candidates for Speaker, Daniel Webster (no, not that one), of Florida, who proposes new rules to return political power to the broader House membership–at least of his own party. But new rules wouldn’t be necessary if they just got rid of the existing ones that concentrated that power in the first place. It’s not like he’d be throwing out valued traditions that will one day form the basis of a smash-hit Broadway musical–the rules were created not that long ago, barely a century has passed in the case of the most pernicious ones. Either way, Clay’s declaration that the role of the Speaker is “to remain cool and unshaken amidst all the storms of debate, carefully guarding the preservation of the permanent laws and rules of the House from being sacrificed to temporary passions, prejudices, or interests,” is awfully nice for elected officials and candidates to repeat, and splendidly gripping for anyone to hear, but that idea–of using cool, unshaken reason to combat passionate, interested prejudice–is just not part of American life anymore, if it ever was, this side of old episodes of The West Wing.
For, in the first analysis, while America’s political leaders have always touted reasoned deliberation as the key to a functioning democracy–an ideological relic of the pre-1776 British Atlantic world–that’s not actually how the American body politic has perceived itself. The “blocking minority” of the majority party in the House, the so-called Tea Party fundamentalists, really are the practical, if not necessarily ideological, heirs of the first Patriots, Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson and their independence-minded colleagues of the Continental Congress. Could the American Revolution have been avoided if men of cool minds and sound reasoning decided to negotiate and compromise rather than, full of passion and interest, resort to intransigence and insist on independence as the only path to secure freedom? Of course. Until then, the British people–including those on this side of the Atlantic–were the freest people in the world and, had not the French Revolution scared the living bejesus out of most reformers, thereby delaying for a bit–but only for a bit–the expansion of that freedom, the worst thing that would have happened is that America would have, over time, essentially become Canada. And that’s not such a bad thing. It’s not like the “American Revolution” was a real fight between liberty and tyranny. George III was far from the demagogue he appears on Schoolhouse Rock and, constitutionally, couldn’t have caused such mischief even if he had wanted to. Far from it, but that’s what Jefferson, Adams, and Thomas Paine, and others sincerely (for the most part) believed, and they acted on that principle, standing on ground made firm by their own colonial American pride and an increasingly virulent British imperial prejudice.
What does that have to do with Henry Clay and the current kerfuffle over the Speaker of the House? Not a damn thing. And that’s my point. The chamber is no longer that of Henry Clay, no more than the Senate–which was directly elected by the state legislatures, not the voters, until 1913–is that of the other Daniel Webster. They both of have been transformed beyond recognition by relatively recent rules and practices, heartily endorsed by the likes of Woodrow Wilson, designed to acquire and keep political power, developed as the parties themselves became the institutional behemoths that we recognize today, which the first Founders and Framers–almost each and every one of them–thought was the foremost threat to liberty. (Ironically, the first of the major rule changes were in reaction to congressmen who wanted to use the House’s power of the purse to shut down post-Civil War federal policies with which a vocal minority disagreed.) That threat was enshrined in America’s governing practices by nothing more than internal congressional rules and the result–of these various attempts to strengthen partisanship but address a blocking minority–is a national legislature that can charitably described as a dysfunctional basketcase.
So what’s needed to address the trouble facing Congress is neither fundamental nor is it complicated. But it might require something of a revolution, in terms of a return to what once was. (As an aside, just consider how different the body might be if they repealed the law, passed in 1911, that capped the size of the House at 435 voting Members–again, not part of the Constitution–and, instead, allowed representation to grow, as the Framers intended, as the country grew, instead of effectively shrinking it with every decennial reapportionment?) If the current Members of the House revere the Founders so terribly much, maybe they need to start showing it by returning the functioning of the House to the one the Founders created, one in which the Speaker was not the head of a party, but the non-partisan overseer of the people’s work. Then Republicans and Democrats might join together in a vote for someone amounting to a consensus leader–and John Boehner can finally go home and get some sleep.
NOTE: Anyone interested in learning more about the remarkable Henry Clay should join me on Thursday, at 3:00 pm, at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate for a timely conversation with historian Harlow Giles Unger about his new biography — Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman. You can register for the event here.