Extremists in my party have threatened to try and remove Speaker Kevin McCarthy for relying on the votes of Democrats to keep the government open. Some of them appear to be authoritarian separatists who reject pluralism — a founding American principle that expects disparate groups to come together to keep the government functioning. Some of them just know that a crowd can be whomped up by overwrought pronouncements of existential threats from the “demons” on the other side.
All of them need to grow up.
I was once a member of Congress who needed to grow up, too. First elected in 1992, I participated in the 1995 shutdown of the government as part of the Republican Revolution. In 1998, I thoughtlessly voted to impeach Bill Clinton. I lost a U.S. Senate race that year, and there ended my first six years in Congress. During those six years, I said and did small things. On climate change, for example: Al Gore was for it, so I was against it. Small.
In the six years that followed, I returned to the practice of law and watched the congressional action from the audience’s perspective. I cringed, observing then-serving members make the same mistakes that I had made.
In 2004, I had the opportunity to return to Congress until the Tea Party criticized me in a Republican primary in 2010 for various heresies: voting for President George W. Bush’s rescue of the banks, supporting comprehensive immigration reform, voting against the troop surge in Iraq out of conservative concern over nation-building and, most enduring of all, saying that climate change was real and proposing a revenue-neutral, border-adjustable carbon tax to solve it. (My son had gotten to me on climate change. A House Science Committee trip to Antarctica had shown me the evidence. And on another Science Committee trip at the Great Barrier Reef, an Aussie climate scientist had inspired me with his desire to love God and love people by making conservation changes in his own life.)
When politicians grow up, they search their careers for substantive accomplishments. The temporary affections of the political crowd, the petty disagreements, the party rivalries are lost in a quest for greater significance. “Am I/was I about something big enough to be about?” the grown-up politician wonders. “Am I/was I about leading or following — the wandering crowd, the party leader presenting a clear danger to the Republic, the aging colleague needing to leave the stage?” “Was I an agent of chaos in a house divided, or did I work to bring America together, healing rifts and bridging divides?”
Former members like me need to be careful not to write revisionist histories. Our times involved plenty of small-mindedness. In the retelling, we often sanitize our stories, removing some of the smallness. Even the irksomeness of the other side is omitted. The vitriol subsides. Former members of Congress even speak of the “others” with newfound fondness.
When I was in Congress, I butted heads with Representative Pat Schroeder, a Democrat from Colorado who served from 1973 to 1997. She was pro-choice; I’m pro-life. She supported nearly every progressive cause; I opposed nearly every progressive cause. The record of our exchanges in the Judiciary Committee will show real acrimony, but when I read the news of her passing in March, I was truly saddened. Someone with whom I had served was no more. A milepost was gone. I had seen Ms. Schroeder several years after we had both left Congress. We were in an elevator at the Capitol. The struggle was gone. The harsh, competitive looks had vanished. I might have even joked with her about using a line I’d heard her say before: “Don’t tell my mother I’m a member of Congress; she thinks I’m a prostitute!” I wish I had asked her if we could be friends.
It’s the same kind of regret that I have about my first six years in Congress, regret that was particularly intense in the sizzling summer of 2023. July 3-6 were the hottest four days on record globally. Algal blooms closed beaches at inland lakes. Even though I spend my time now inviting fellow conservatives into the climate conversation, my regret remains. What troubles could we have avoided if people like me had signed up earlier for the climate challenge?
I realize now that the fight wasn’t against Al Gore; it was against climate change. Just like the challenge of funding the government isn’t a referendum on Speaker McCarthy; it’s a challenge of making one out of many — E pluribus unum — and of bringing the country together to do basic things. We face huge challenges, but we face them together. No American is exempt from our crushing federal debt and deficit. No American is exempt from epic demographic and technological changes. No American is exempt from the challenge of climate change. We’re in this together.
These are all substantive challenges, and substantive challenges are never against the other party, the “other” people. Liberals need retired petroleum engineers to find lithium for electric vehicle batteries in failed, briny oil wells. Conservatives may need to sit with supposed socialists who are reading Milton Friedman on universal basic income concepts.
I’ve been gone from Congress for more than 10 years now, and here’s my advice to currently serving members of Congress: Ten years from now, you’ll be embarrassed that you cavalierly threatened to shut down the government or to refuse to pay its debts. You’ll be embarrassed by overwrought pronouncements about the evil of the other side. You’ll want to have engaged on substantive issues like climate change. You’ll wish that you’d known the wisdom that Carl Sandburg recounted in his biography of Abraham Lincoln:
Several Northern congressmen in Lincoln’s office were calling for retaliation. They wanted hangings of “rebel” leaders. Representative James K. Moorhead was making a second and more vitriolic attack than his first when Lincoln leaned across his table, shot out an arm and pointed a long finger: “Mr. Moorhead, haven’t you lived long enough to know that two men may honestly differ about a question and both be right?”
Haven’t you now? That’s my question for current members of Congress who still have some growing up to do.
Bob Inglis, a Republican, represented the Fourth Congressional District of South Carolina from 1993 to 1999 and from 2005 to 2011.
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