At the end of a year of political chaos and Congressional dysfunction, something remarkable happened. Washington did its job. 2015 brought the tearful resignation of a House Speaker, a bombastic GOP frontrunner and a socialist challenger to the Clinton coronation. But another surprise was that Republican and Democratic leaders negotiated and passed—and that President Obama signed—major budget and tax legislation. There was no shutdown, less drama and more dialogue, less brinksmanship and more leadership.
Could it be the “Francis Factor”? In September, Pope Francis told Congress “you are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.” On Capitol Hill, I found leaders after the pope’s visit both challenged and affirmed by his call to see politics as a vocation. Clearly, John Boehner’s decision to leave the speakership right after the papal visit and Paul Ryan’s reluctant decision to accept it brought different dynamics and a willingness to work together.
The Christmas miracle (and members were desperate to leave for Christmas vacation) was that reasonable compromise prevailed over partisan combat and ideological stalemate. The expected extension of business tax breaks for powerful interests was matched by extension of tax credits for poor working families. Bipartisan education and transportation bills were passed and signed. Congress funded the federal government without paralyzing policy riders often demanded by partisan warriors.
This outbreak of legislative sanity contrasted with the exploitation of legitimate fear and economic frustration for extreme policies and political advantage by leading Republican presidential candidates. Donald Trump tweeted, defended and doubled down on his unconstitutional proposal to deny access to the United States based on religion. He extended his call to demonize and deport undocumented immigrants to now disqualify any Muslim from coming to our country, simply because of his or her faith.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference and other religious leaders have opposed this for moral, human and religious liberty reasons. Governor Bush among Republicans, President Obama and the Democratic candidates also condemned Mr. Trump’s stance for constitutional and practical reasons. Speaker Ryan, breaking his no comment rule on the campaign, later said the Trump proposal on Muslims “is not what this party stands for and more importantly it’s not what this country stands for.” Cardinal Wuerl told an unprecedented Interfaith Gathering at Georgetown “violence succeeds only if it changes us. This gathering today is a living, vivid, audible testimony that we will not be changed because of the hatred and violence of others, but that we will stand together strengthened by…faith…and solidarity.” In fact, we protect American values by practicing them, including religious freedom and welcoming refugees, in difficult moments.
In response to the horrific terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Donald Trump’s promises to “bomb the _____ out of them” and to target the families of those who might attack the United States. Senator Cruz said,“We will carpet bomb [ISIS] into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” These promises appear to violate international law and traditional moral and Catholic teaching on the ethical limits on the use of military force, but that doesn’t slow them down in their desire to look and talk tough.
In contrast to the angry campaign, Speaker Ryan in a major speech at the Library of Congress offered some predictable partisan and ideological points, but added, “We are not here to be someone but to do something—to serve our country. We believe in the American idea: The condition of your birth should not determine the outcome of your life. And we want to do our part to pass on that idea to the next generation. We do not see politics as a popularity contest. To us, it is a calling.”
President Obama at his year-end press conference took a political victory lap and defended his sometimes tone-deaf responses to terror, but also commended the unusual bipartisan agreement on taxes and spending. He said, “there’s still a lot more that Congress can do to promote job growth and increase wages in this country. I still want to work with Congress—both Democrats and Republicans—to reform our criminal justice system.” The president thanked Congress “for ending the year on a high note” and said “there are going to be a handful of areas where we can make real progress.”
President Obama, Speaker Ryan and other leaders welcomed and express respect for Pope Francis. The pope’s World Day of Peace message outlines an agenda that his Washington admirers could work on together. Francis calls for “specific and courageous gestures of concern for the most vulnerable…prisoners, migrants, the unemployed and the infirm.” He also calls for addressing wages, working conditions and discrimination against women in the workplace; “the search for new ways to confront climate change and to protect the earth” and warns against undermining “the fundamental and inalienable right to life of the unborn.”
In this New Year’s message, Pope Francis warns against “destructive cynicism” and “the globalization of indifference.” Both are terrible temptations in this election year. Francis calls for an “attitude of mutual responsibility” requiring us “to act together in solidarity…to demonstrate concern for the more vulnerable of our brothers and sisters and for the protection of the common good.” This is not the usual political path in Washington or on the campaign trail, but it offers a better way forward for our nation in this New Year.