With Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, on his way out, Republicans in Congress must replace him with a member who understands the job of the Speaker: to unite rather than divide Americans. The nation's survival may well depend on finding such a person.
Unlike Boehner, who couldn't work with one president, America's greatest speaker, Kentucky's Henry Clay, worked with ten presidents--many of them bitter political foes--over fifty critical years before the Civil War. During that time, he not only prevented secession and civil war, he engineered the greatest economic development scheme in American history--one that made the nation the most prosperous on earth.
The Speaker and the President are the only two American officials elected by all Americans--"We the People"--and they cannot agree on every issue. With 435 members in the House, consensus is virtually impossible most of the time, and even the best of speakers cannot avoid legislative gridlock. Indeed, less than five percent of all legislative proposals ever become law.
So, what many Americans criticize as congressional "dysfunction" is actually the normal by-product of democracy--of conflicting interests trying to live in peace under one Constitution. Americans are a diversified people, in a country whose size and geography make one-size-fits-all solutions impossible--and its people have "unalienable rights" to pursue their interests, with benefits to some and unwelcome restrictions for others. To remain united, each group--and its congressional representative--must compromise and make personal and collective sacrifices.
In the 225 years since the First Congress convened, every Congress has elected one member to reconcile those conflicting interests: the Speaker. Known as "the elect of the elect," the Speaker's powers are second only to the President himself. He commands the legislative process, naming committee chairs and members and, through them, whether and when a bill can come to the floor for a vote. He selects which members can speak for or against it, when they can speak, and for how long.
Speaker John Boehner obviously didn't understand his role. Once Congress elects its Speaker, it does not expect him to debate or vote. Contrary to a carelessly researched article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohio's largest newspaper, which praised Boehner for perfecting "the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable," the art that great speakers perfect is that of compromising--not disagreeing.
Americans recognized Henry Clay as the nation's greatest statesman precisely because he was "The Great Compromiser." Speaker, and later Senate majority leader, Clay saved the nation by engineering five monumental compromises between bitterly divided congressmen from the pro-slavery South and "free-soil" North. Starting with the famed Missouri Compromise of 1820, Speaker Clay's compromises not only prevented dissolution of the Union, they postponed the outbreak of civil war for forty years.
During those years, Clay put in place what he called "The American System" that brought feuding federal and state governments together to build a network of roads, canals, and railroads linking every corner of twenty northern, central, and mid-western states. Suddenly, vast numbers of people and businesses could move about the Union easily, establishing agricultural, commercial, financial, political, and social connections that made dissolution of the Union unthinkable.
More than 20 million Americans lived in those 20 interconnected states before the Civil War, compared to only 5.5 million in the 11, independence-minded southern states. Unionists, whatever their states of origin, became "Americans" all and went to war to preserve their Union.
In contrast to Speaker Clay, Speaker Boehner has left his political party splintered, unable to select a presidential candidate who can enunciate a coherent plan for America. He is leaving Congress bitterly divided, unable to pass essential legislation to repair the nation's collapsing infrastructure and crippled social institutions or restore its influence in international affairs. Others have helped, of course, but he held the title "Mister Speaker"--charged with engineering compromises to unite the nation. Instead, he spent our tax dollars planning to sue the President and shut down the government.
If Republicans want to contend for power in next year's election, they had best comb their membership for a statesman and master of the art of compromise. Indeed, for the nation's sake, they must find a Speaker who, like Henry Clay, can proclaim "the preservation of the Union" as "the paramount object of my public life."
Harlow Giles Unger has written twenty five books, including ten biographies of the Founding Fathers and three histories of the early American republic. His latest book, Henry Clay: America's Greatest Statesman, has just been published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.