Opinion: Boehner-Cantor tensions in GOP destructive, hurting House

I am sure I’m not the first to think that Congress often acts like a dysfunctional family. But even dysfunctional families sometimes have their moments of genuine authenticity. 

We saw this family at its best three weeks ago, when former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords made an incredibly heartwarming farewell to Congress. Gabby has been a dear friend of mine, and also of nearly everyone who knows her. I was deeply moved when she appeared on the House floor to say goodbye. It was one of the most human moments I have ever witnessed in Washington. Colleagues on both sides of the aisle were deeply and genuinely moved. Speaker Boehner and Democratic Leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) were very personal in their greetings, and I could sense the authenticity of their feelings.  Gabby’s visit reminded us of our shared humanity that is beyond partisanship.

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As inspiring as that moment was, it frustrates me that these times are so few and far between. I’m sure every member of Congress believes they are doing the right thing, but too many see this as a zero-sum game, where winning requires that the other side loses. The way Congress is currently structured, much of the time too few members take the opportunity to be human. They posture on the floor and speak as if they are robotic message mouthpieces rather than the thoughtful representatives that I know them to be. I wish every American could see the members “good sides” that I know and respect.

The human side. It’s what I see when colleagues talk in the halls and back rooms. Instead, Americans watch a childish food fight played out on the House floor and on the cable talk shows.

This sibling rivalry is not just between Republicans and Democrats; it also exists somewhat more subtly within each caucus. Most obvious is the jealousy and back-stabbing of the Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

In my decade in Congress, I have spent a fair amount of time with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). I respect him and we have worked well together. John and I often don’t agree on policy, but he is always thoughtful and gracious. The rivalry between him and Mr. Cantor is not unusual, but it is unusually destructive, and it is one of the main reasons that this Congress has been so unable to find consensus on anything. I am not the only one to notice the divide, either. Just a few weeks ago at the annual Alfalfa Club Dinner, President Obama ribbed the Speaker saying, “Mr. Boehner, it's good to see you sitting at the main table. I know how badly Mr. Cantor wanted that seat!”

Boehner is captive to this rivalry only because he has no choice but to constantly watch his back. Cantor feeds and exploits the most radical factions in the Republican Caucus, and his jealousy often mires his caucus in ideological impotence. Of course, Democrats are always grateful!

In contrast, look at the Pelosi and Hoyer relationship. They have been both friends and rivals since they were congressional interns as college students. They ran against each other for Democratic Leader and Pelosi even launched a failed attempt to make former Congressman Jack Murtha her number 2, in place of Hoyer. I saw the tension up close and personal when I nominated both Nancy and Steny in that year’s Caucus election.  

Nonetheless, the two have presented a united front to their caucus and the press, and Hoyer has been a loyal deputy in both good times and bad. I served in the leadership with them both for nearly four years. They were always professional, gracious and respectful.  Hoyer’s loyalty and leadership has fostered Pelosi’s ability to unite and lead her caucus much more effectively than Boehner’s situation has allowed him.

Although our congressional family has more than its share of dysfunction, there are still good people on both sides of the aisle.

The emotions that Gabby Giffords brought out in all of us gives me hope that our humanity is not completely lost.  We just need to be reminded.