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Katy Burns

Katy Burns: Disorder in the House

In the legislative chambers in Concord last week, all was relative sweetness and light.

But those in D.C.? Not so much.

Here in New Hampshire, the swearing in of Maggie Hassan as the state’s 81st governor and the opening of a new legislative session were mostly feel-good occasions marked by determined civility all around.

It seemed clear that all parties, Democratic and Republican, were determined, at least initially, to avoid the bitter battles sparked by the bellicose then-new members of the last legislature and their take-no-prisoners approach to governing.

But as the congressional guard changed in our nation’s capital, it was obvious that we were in for another two years of rancor and tumult, particularly when it comes to the House of Representatives. While both Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell kept a pretty firm grip on their respective Democratic and Republican troops in the Senate, in the House pandemonium continued.

And it burst into full, putrefying flower when – after agonized and protracted negotiations over a resolution of the self-inflicted “fiscal cliff” dilemmas finally ended – the House found itself unable to deal with something as simple, as elemental, as disaster aid.

And so in the closing hours of the last legislative session, House Speaker John Boehner, reduced to little more than a petulant bystander while his fractious factions acted out their own little psychodramas, simply threw in the towel.

Probably because he could not be assured of enough GOP votes, he decided not to bring to a vote at all a much-delayed bill appropriating funds for the hard-pressed victims of Superstorm Sandy, one of the worst natural disasters in this country in recent years.

Sandy brought overwhelming devastation to significant sections of the East Coast, especially parts of New Jersey and New York. They may be areas dominated by Democrats, but they – along with the West Coast – are the cash cows of the federal government, paying far more into federal coffers than they get in return.

Hypocritically, the naysayers were likely the usual naysayers in the House these days: Tea Partiers who are by and large concentrated in the parts of the country where state governments, unlike New York, New Jersey and the rest of the Northeast, are takers of the federal largess they rail against.

They get far more in overall aid than their citizens collectively send to Washington. Not, of course, that it keeps them from trying to starve that federal beast.

The congressional representatives from Sandy-stricken states were full-throated in their outrage, shouting their objections even as the presiding officer gaveled the 112th Congress into merciful oblivion.

Particularly pungent were the cries from Boehner’s fellow Republicans, foremost among them Peter King, a bombastic representative from Long Island. “Immoral,” “disgraceful” and “inexcusable” were just a few of the words he used to describe his fellow reps. The “party of family values,” he charged, had turned its back on “families that are starving, families that are suffering, families that are spread all over living in substandard housing.”

Republicans, he said, “have no problem finding New York when they’re out raising millions of dollars. They’re in New York all the time filling pockets with money from New Yorkers. I’m saying anyone from New York and New Jersey who contributes one penny to congressional Republicans is out of their mind. Because what they did last night was put a knife in the back of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans.”

Zowie! But King was outdone by New Jersey’s proudly loud-mouthed Gov. Chris Christie, who has been relentless since Sandy in seeking help for his stricken shore communities.

The House’s failure to act on a $60 billion relief package, said Christie, was “disgusting” and there was “only one group to blame, the Republican Party and Speaker Boehner.” He condemned the “selfishness and duplicity” and the “palace intrigue” of House players who were “putting politics ahead of their responsibilities.” When natural disasters are concerned, he said “We respond as Americans, at least we did until last night.”

He continued: “Last night the House of Representatives failed that most basic test of public service, and they did so with callous indifference to the suffering of the people of my state,” he fulminated.

“Sixty-six days and counting – shame on you. Shame on Congress. Despite my anger and disappointment, my hope is that the good people in Congress – and there are good people in Congress – will prevail upon their colleagues to finally, finally put aside the politics and help our people now. . . .

“There is no reason for me to believe anything they tell me,” he said devastatingly of the House leadership which had promised him a vote.

Christie said he had called Boehner four times. Boehner had not called him back.

Within a day, Boehner, clearly alarmed by the unexpected ferocity of his own party members, promised a new vote on a small relief proposal in the new Congress on Friday and a vote several weeks later on a somewhat larger package.

But the damage had been done. A vivid picture had been painted for anyone unable to see clearly before: Congress has become essentially dysfunctional.

This is true especially in the House of Representatives, which now seems to have a significant number of Republicans who are proud to loathe politics nearly as much as they loathe government.

These aren’t small government fans, as responsible Republicans once prided themselves as being. They are no government absolutists who were largely elected in the Tea Party frenzy of 2010 and kept in place largely through the insane gerrymandering that has made a mockery of representative politics.

These are the people who now dominate the legislative levers of the once Grand Old Party.

We are talking about people who don’t recognize negotiation, accommodation or compromise, although – in real life, away from the hothouse unreality of Capitol Hill – negotiation, accommodation and compromise have been an essential part of human civilization since it first began to take shape on the prehistoric savannahs of Africa and caves of Europe.

We are talking about people with only a limited grasp of what government actually does and complete contempt for the important role it plays in the lives of virtually everyone in this country.

They don’t see any government, whether on a local, state or national level, as being “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln so quaintly put it.

They see government as a malignant, malicious other, a self-perpetuating entity intent only on doing evil. Stopping it – even if it means destroying the American economy and its fragile recovery that finally seems to be under way – is okay with them, as we will see repeatedly in the miserable months to come

It’s easy to say that they’re Boehner’s problem, because he and the rest of the once responsible Republicans were only too happy to encourage and to indulge the naysayers, the Tea Partiers, the anti-science zealots, even the downright crazies – birthers welcome! – if it meant a return to power for them. And they got their return.

But it’s also, it’s increasingly obvious, a problem for the rest of us as well. Just ask Chris Christie.

(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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