Matter of Conscience

Published: September 28, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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In a moving and meaningful message to Congress last Thursday, Pope Francis said, “Politics is… an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good… Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. … The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”

Listening to Francis, the first question that came to mind was: How many in Congress actually will act for the “greatest common good”? How many will push aside political self-interest for the common interests of the nation?

On Friday, I had my answer.


House Speaker John Boehner appeared at an unscheduled press conference to announce that at the end of October, he would resign his position as speaker and give up his seat in the House.

“Just yesterday,” Boehner reflected, “we witnessed the awesome sight of Pope Francis addressing the greatest legislative body in the world. And I hope we will all heed his call to live by the golden rule. But last night, I started to think about this. … And this morning, I woke up and I said my prayers, as I always do, and I decided, you know, today’s the day I’m going to do this.

“As simple as that.

“That’s the code I always lived by, if you do the right things for the right reasons, the right things will happen.”

In the Q&A that followed, Boehner explained what was going on behind the scenes. “…this turmoil that’s been churning now for a couple months is not good for the members and it’s not good for the institution. And if I wasn’t planning on leaving here soon, I can tell you I would not have done this.”

The turmoil Boehner is referencing was another rising dispute within the Republican Party between mainstream conservatives and their more extreme members in the Tea Party who feel that “God’s Authority,” the ghosts of the framers of the constitution, and their own interests have ordained that the best way to get what they want… on every issue…  is to shutdown the government… no matter the consequence to the majority of Republicans or the country.

On CBS News’ Face the Nation, Boehner was a little more specific.

BOEHNER: Listen, we have accomplished a lot over the four-and-a-half years that I was speaker, and whether it was the largest deficit reduction deal in the history of the country, saving $2.1 trillion, protecting 99 percent of the American people from an increase in our taxes, or the first major entitlement reforms in 20 years, all done over last four-and-a-half years with a Democrat president, and all voted against by my most conservative members because it wasn’t good enough.


“This is the part that I really don’t understand. Our founders gave us a system of government, a majority in the House, you need 60 votes in the Senate. If the House and Senate can agree, the president gets to decide. And our founders didn’t want some parliamentary system where, if you won the majority, you got to do whatever you wanted. They wanted this long, slow process.

And so change comes slowly, and obviously too slowly for some.

DICKERSON: Well, are they unrealistic about what can be done in government? That’s the dysfunction.

BOEHNER: Absolutely they’re unrealistic.

But the Bible says, beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done. …

DICKERSON: Is Ted Cruz a false prophet?

BOEHNER: Listen, you can pick a lot of names out. I’ll let you choose them.

DICKERSON: You don’t debate that assertion?

BOEHNER: I’ll refer you to my remark at a fund-raiser I made in August in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Boehner is indeed referring to Ted Cruz. “At a Steamboat Springs event for GOP Rep. Scott Tipton,” The Daily Caller writes (Aug. 27), “the Ohio Republican quipped that he likes how Cruz’s presidential campaign keeps ‘that jackass’ out of Washington, and from telling Boehner how to do his job.”

As CNN reported last Friday (Sept. 25), “The Ohio Republican’s tenure as Speaker has been marked by clashes with conservatives… the Speaker has often relied on Democratic votes during these moments — a strategy that has infuriated conservatives.

“The abrupt decision comes amid heavy pressure from conservatives for Boehner to take a harder line on their causes, most recently over defunding Planned Parenthood as part of a package that would keep the government open. Boehner said he didn’t want to put his fellow members through another vote to challenge his leadership.”

Boehner told colleagues that Pope Francis’ speech before Congress the previous day had been a defining moment – a moment to reflect on Francis’ words and how he might demonstrate positive action in his own life. “When you are the speaker of the House, your No. 1 responsibility is to the institution. And having a vote like this [the shutdown] in the institution, I don’t think is very healthy. And so, I’ve done everything I can over my term as speaker to strengthen the institution. And frankly, my move today is another step in that effort to strengthen the institution.”

Before he finished, Boehner recalled Francis’ message and hoped that “we all heed his call to live by the Golden Rule,” underlining the need for all leaders to “find common ground to get things done.”

“I feel good about what I’ve done,” Boehner added. “I know that I — every day try to do the right things for the right reasons, and try to do the right thing for the country.”

While I applaud John Boehner’s decision-making, a much larger question remains: Who now, will be the decisive voice of reason in the House?


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