All eyes were drawn to Washington, D.C. last month as the United States inaugurated Donald J. Trump as its 45th president.
It was a hard-fought and divisive political season – one that has raised anxiety levels both in the United States and abroad. It is now up to the new president and the Republican-controlled 115th Congress to get to work.
Confirming President Trump’s nominees for Cabinet-level and other senior government positions is a significant first task facing the Senate. And, they’re hard at work meeting privately with nominees, questioning them publicly in hearings and giving all of us a first look at how they would manage their Cabinet agencies in service of the American people.
Diversity is Good
President Trump is not a part of the Republican establishment, nor does he present himself as such. This has caused much questioning in Washington and in capitals around the world about what we can expect from his administration.
His nominees to fill the Cabinet and other senior posts include loyalists, political opponents, former military officers and business people. It’s a varied bunch, ranging from Rex Tillerson, former chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) to retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis and Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.).
Listening to their testimonies to Senate committees reveals a notable diversity of opinions expressed by the nominees.
The president, tweeting on Jan. 13, expressed his support: “All of my Cabinet nominees are looking good and doing a great job. I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!”
Diversity is good.
And if the president is able to harness the talent of his Cabinet and cultivate a productive working relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) there is a possibility of making significant progress. That’s what the president and congressional leaders have promised.
A Nation of Laws
But what if that prospect frightens you?
I have Republican friends, Democrat friends and non-U.S. friends who are all concerned about the direction the country may be heading. The despondency some of them felt on election night was incapacitating.
Even so, the sun came up the next morning.
I don’t say that to be flippant, but rather to provide some perspective. Our nation is governed by laws, written by Congress and signed by the president.
Yes, this issue of “legislating by executive order” is real. But those executive orders only last until the president who signed them leaves office. One of President Trump’s first jobs upon taking office was to decide which of President Obama’s executive orders to adopt.
Laws passed by Congress persist. They are the law of the land. And if you’ve ever been exposed to the legislative process, you know it’s not easy to get them passed. Changing them is equally difficult.
“To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making,” is how Otto von Bismarck famously put it.
I’ve written before about my experience as an American Geosciences Institute (AGI) Congressional Science Fellow, now named after AAPG past-president William Fisher. And in my final column for AGI’s Geotimes magazine in December 2002, I wrote the following:
“The past year has given me opportunity to see the U.S. government in action from the inside, and I marvel. Success was hardly assured when the Founding Fathers gathered to declare independence from Britain, and yet their actions set in motion an experiment in self-governance that has proven remarkably resilient over the past 226 years. Far from smooth sailing, our nation’s history is full of struggles, some of which threatened to destroy the republic, others that tore at the basic fabric of our society. Through it all, though, Lincoln’s admonition that our government was and must remain ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ and that such government ‘shall not perish from the Earth’ provided a foundation that our elected leaders have not undermined.
Admittedly, in Washington it is especially easy to be swept away by an overly romanticized patriotism that merely feeds the cynic’s view that it is all a sham. The reality, though, is that while our system of government is far from perfect, it works because the people are involved. As citizens we too often abdicate the responsibility of engaging in public discourse and debate, an essential element of good government, because it seems so mean spirited and nasty. And yet, how else do you balance ideological extremes and arrive at an acceptable solution? At times, the whole operation does seem to land in the ditch, which might (ahem) characterize the current situation in Washington.
Ironically, this usually happens around Election Day. Time for the people to grab the reins and put things aright – that’s resilience.
So the next time you cringe watching C-SPAN or cable news, remember that in our republic the mess is part of the magic. Then grab your pen and write your congressional representative, get involved and join the debate. Hold your nose if you must, but come into the sausage factory and be part of the solution. Whether it is in your local school, PTA, university, church, on a mountaintop, outcrop, or maybe even Congress, you’ve got something to offer and I look forward to hearing your story.”
The mess is part of the magic. I still believe that.