For the first time since the Constitution was adopted, the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives is vacant. The holder of that title is second in line to be President of the United States if both the President and the Vice-President are dead or disabled. He or she controls what the House chooses to consider or not consider. Without a Speaker, the House is effectively paralyzed. He or she is supposed to bring order to an arena of competing interests and objectives. Last week, chaos reigned supreme.

The official version of how we got here is that Kevin McCarthy, as Speaker, needed to get the cooperation of Democratic Representatives to pass a bill that would fund the government for six weeks.  A few of the Republican Representatives that he theoretically controlled refused to support this funding measure and vowed to shut down the government if they did not get a bill they liked. At the last minute, McCarthy convinced Democrats to support his funding bill to circumvent the opposition from his own party [Republican] members. A few of the more rebellious Republicans demanded McCarthy’s head on a pike for his betrayal of his own party, even though that betrayal kept money flowing to pay the salaries of soldiers, customs inspectors, flight controllers and innumerable other vital Federal government workers. Discord is the norm in the House of Representatives, and in the absence of a clear alternative to Mr. McCarthy, he expected the bluster from his long-time nemeses to be an empty threat. He was wrong.

The Democrats that he had enlisted to help pass the funding bill might have come to his rescue if he had not blamed them for the near catastrophe of a government shutdown. Shortly after his Democratic colleagues helped him pass the funding bill and avert a shutdown, he went on national television and blamed these same Democrats for having stood in the way of his getting the bill passed uneventfully. In medical terms, this is the equivalent of suing a doctor for saving your life: you were intent on committing suicide and he or she frustrated your efforts. After reviewing McCarthy’s television performance, all of the House Democrats decided to let the Republicans roast their own.  His people kicked him to the curb.

This is an especially bad time for the government to be more dysfunctional than it usually is.  The war in the Ukraine grinds on with war fatigue clearly developing in all the countries involved, except Russia. Support for U.S. funding and involvement in the war is waning.  The naïve belief emerging is that when Russia overwhelms the Ukraine it will be satisfied and will not go after other countries. Americans over ninety years old may remember these same assurances being floated in the 1930s when another European country decided to annex Czechoslovakia.  The conventional thinking was that if Germany was allowed to overrun that ill-defended country, it would be satisfied, and we would have “peace in our time.” Stupid ideas re-emerge more often than intelligent ones.

Adding to the worrisome instability that we must deal with wisely is the chaos south of our border that is driving millions of people north.  As has been a longstanding American tradition, we are receiving these refugees with anger and resentment. The descendants of the immigrants that periodically flooded our country over the past two centuries want nothing to do with “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”  Much of the chaos south of us is being funded by the insatiable market for illicit drugs in the United States.  Billions of American dollars are being supplied to Latin American warlords and corrupt politicians who need that financing to maintain their hold on a dozen countries that might otherwise achieve stability and prosperity for its citizens. 

An irony rarely mentioned in the complaints about the chaos to the south is that much, if not most, of the firearms used by the drug cartels to terrorize and subjugate the noncriminal population is smuggled across the Mexican border from the U.S.  The people streaming north are trying to escape poverty and the weapons that are flooding their countries from their neighbor to the north. If Americans stopped buying tons of illicit drugs from Latin America and stopped selling thousands of military-grade weapons to the cartels brutalizing the Latin American populations, we would no longer face the burden of millions of displaced people driven from their homelands.

In Europe, NATO alliances are getting frayed.  In Asia, North Korea insists on flexing its nuclear muscle.  China may use a military incursion into Taiwan to help prop up its own militant hardliners.  In Africa, democracies are being toppled as quickly as they appear.  In the Middle East, there is all out warfare.  In the face of these highly combustible situations, our national leaders are focused on whether the government will re-imburse a soldier’s wife for travelling out of state to get healthcare unavailable near the soldier’s post.  Our Senators will not promote members of the Armed Services unless all one hundred of them are comfortable with Pentagon policies.

But the most important issue of the day is when Nancy Pelosi will get her pictures out of the office to which she was relegated when she lost the Speaker’s job to Kevin McCarthy. One of the innumerable, childish rules enforced by the House of Representatives is that the outgoing Speaker immediately gets a specific office each time the Speakership changes. The day McCarthy was fired by his colleagues, he notified the prior Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, that she had 24 hours to clear her stuff out of her office before the locks would be changed and McCarthy would move in.  That Pelosi was in California at the funeral of Senator Diane Feinstein and McCarthy was not being ejected from his office by a new Speaker of the House when this ultimatum was delivered was no basis for an exception to this important Congressional rule.

Who gets the second best office in the building is obviously very important in this fraternity house whose members decide the fate of the nation. Our government could do the job it gets paid to do if we had serious, intelligent grown-ups in all three of its branches. Unfortunately, we have elected several men and women who want attention more than they desire peace and progress. These unruly few are transforming the most important deliberative body in the world into an out of control kindergarten.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the U.S., as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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