The U.S. Capitol really was “the people’s house” on Thursday. The sky may have been overcast and the temperature chilly, but still there was the feeling of dawn.
The new Congress was being sworn in and the building was thronged with friends and family who came to fill the galleries. Because of the unprecedented diversity of the incoming House majority, the crowd looked more like America than in years past. Beginnings beget optimism. The day of ceremony was a welcome respite from the mean-spirited buffoonery at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
To get to the Capitol, I drove and walked past other “people’s houses” that were shuttered. The Smithsonian Institution — often called the greatest museum complex in the world — was closed because of a stupid and wholly unnecessary government shutdown, triggered by President Trump out of ignorance and pique. Trump closed about one-fourth of the government in an attempt to force U.S. taxpayers to waste billions of dollars pretending to build an unbuildable border wall that Trump promised would be paid for by Mexico.
“I will take the mantle of shutting down,” Trump promised in December. As trash piles up in our majestic national parks, border agents perform their dangerous work without pay and affected agencies run out of emergency funds, the mantle of shame is Trump’s alone.
It is only fitting, after the past two years of bumbling dysfunction, that the new Democratic majority in the House — led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi — debuts amid a crisis that Republicans managed to create all by themselves.
Remember that Trump had GOP majorities in both chambers of Congress and still, somehow, managed to bluster and blunder his way into a shutdown. That’s hard to do. It’s kind of like wearing both a belt and suspenders and still having your pants fall down around your ankles.
One thing Pelosi brings, as she becomes speaker for the second time, is competence. That should be a reason for optimism, regardless of party affiliation or political views.
During the past eight years, when John Boehner and Paul Ryan held the speaker’s gavel, I often heard Pelosi express great exasperation — not just at their wrongheaded priorities but at their failure to display skills that she considered elementary.
It sometimes falls to a speaker to pass legislation that many in the majority caucus do not like. In 2007, Pelosi needed approval of a bill funding the war in Iraq, which barely a handful of House Democrats supported. She got the bill through and also gave her caucus the chance to go on the record as opposing the war.
Boehner and Ryan let themselves be tied in knots by the “Hastert rule” — named after a former GOP speaker — under which they pledged not to bring legislation to the floor unless it had the support of a majority of the majority caucus. Pelosi knows that the speaker’s proper role is not to blindly obey consensus, but to actively shape it.
She began by having the House pass a series of bills to reopen the government by funding most affected agencies through September — except the Department of Homeland Security, which would only be funded through Feb. 8. That would allow things to return to normal and provide a month for further debate about Trump’s fanciful border wall.
“We have given the Republicans a chance to take “yes” for an answer,” Pelosi said Wednesday. But since when is Trump’s GOP smart enough to do that?
I wish I could predict that Democratic control of the House will automatically make everything better. I can’t. Despite Mitt Romney’s defiant op-ed in The Washington Post, the Republican Party remains essentially a zombie-like servant of Trump.
He keeps telling congressional Republicans to jump off cliffs, and they keep taking the plunge. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he will not even bring to the floor House-passed spending measures which the Senate last month unanimously approved.
But for the first time, Trump will confront an opposition that has real power. All the frenzied tweeting in the world can’t take back his self-proclaimed ownership of the “Trump shutdown,” as Pelosi calls it. How much garbage needs to pile up on the National Mall before McConnell, who has made deals with Pelosi before, seeks a way out of the impasse? How many government paychecks and subsidy payments have to be missed?
Trump will learn that government-by-tantrum doesn’t always work — and, more to the point, that he’s not the only one in Washington with real power.
Reach Eugene Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.