“Democracy is messy,” Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana told reporters Wednesday. That morning, he had faced defeat on an attempt to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, as well as a stand-alone bill to allocate $17.6 billion in military aid for Israel.?
Those weren’t the only examples of messiness, either. In fact, a string of legislative failures have made the 118th Congress the least productive in nearly a century.??
Johnson’s defenders might point to his narrow majority or the uneasy coalition of Donald Trump supporters and more traditional conservatives he has to manage. But you don’t have to go far back in history to see that those can be overcome by a more agile leader than Republicans have had lately.
In 2019, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., faced several uphill battles. Democrats enjoyed an 18-seat majority after the 2018 midterms, but it was up to her to corral a conference with a larger share of progressive critics, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., not to mention a Republican-controlled Senate.
The country was also 12 days into what would become the longest government shutdown in American history, as Trump spent weeks vowing the government wouldn’t reopen unless Democrats supported billions in funds for a wall at the southern border. Pelosi didn’t budge.
Weeks into the new Congress, a majority of Americans blamed Trump for the standstill. By late January, Trump signed stopgap legislation to reopen the government with no new funds for a border wall. Then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., credited Pelosi with the victory, saying, “No one should ever underestimate the speaker, as Donald Trump has learned.”
During Pelosi's tenure, the 116th Congress would pass legislation that funded the government for the long term and offered lifelines in the wake of a pandemic. The House would advance voting rights, housing protections and gun safety reform legislation. She also skillfully managed her conference as it impeached Trump for that infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Despite an even slimmer majority in the 117th Congress, Pelosi was instrumental in securing aid for Ukraine, assistance for U.S. veterans exposed to burn pits and the Inflation Reduction Act — which Republican candidates continue to campaign on, even though they voted against the historic legislation.
Pelosi’s legacy continues under House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who repeatedly secured unanimous Democratic votes in the 118th House’s dozens of speaker elections and organized his conference behind bipartisan legislation to fund the government and sidestep a shutdown.
Johnson is right. Democracy — and governing — can be messy. But as Pelosi and Jeffries have proven, that doesn’t mean they have to be a mess.?
A narrow majority is no excuse for a neutered legislative branch. Effective governing is a choice, and the current speaker has decided against it. He has proved time and time again that he doesn’t have the chops to lead the House. So I’m not giving Johnson a pass for being the “least productive” on the strength of having a narrow majority.
Despite major concessions from Senate Democrats on the most stringent border legislation in years, Johnson almost immediately announced it was dead on arrival in the House. He has repeatedly failed to organize his conference to support a long-term government funding deal, relying on House Democrats to help delay a devastating shutdown.
House Republicans themselves have lamented their lack of effectiveness, with Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, shouting on the House floor for Republicans to give him “one thing — one — that I can go campaign on and say we did. One!” He continued: “Explain to me one material, meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done.”
The American people took a chance on Republicans in the 2022 midterms, and House Republicans have betrayed that trust with their refusal to effectively govern, or to even attempt to govern at all.?
Fortunately, the American people have a chance to re-evaluate that decision in less than a year, with every House seat up for re-election in November. Here’s hoping they vote accordingly.
For more thought-provoking insights from Michael Steele, Symone Sanders-Townsend and Alicia Menendez, watch “The Weekend” every Saturday and Sunday at 8 a.m. ET on MSNBC.