Same Old ‘Same Old’ in Washington, DC

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This seemingly self-contradictory observation by French critic Alphonse Karr has been quoted to the point of cliché, as its meaning has been debated for the past 150+ years. It alludes to how our innate human instincts do not really change over time. Certainly, though, our means of addressing our instinctual needs have changed, as technological advances give us options never before imagined. For example the basic job of farming ‒ i.e. the business of growing crops or raising animals ‒ remains the same, but how farmers accomplish their job bears little resemblance to the past. When I was young, my grandfather still farmed with a team of horses!

Institutions have some of these same characteristics. Leadership has some of these same characteristics. Both endeavor to accomplish the same tasks or goals, but through constantly changing means. While some kinds of changes initially seem revolutionary, over time we adapt, and the change no longer seems like a big deal.

We are now seeing this phenomenon unfold before our eyes, as the U.S. House of Representatives is undergoing seemingly shocking change. Speaker of the House John Boehner unexpectedly announced his resignation a few weeks ago, setting off a guessing game as to who his replacement would be, and how that successor would affect the chain of leadership. Soon after, Kevin McCarthy, who as House majority leader holds the No. 2 position in the House leadership structure, announced he would seek the speakership. His announcement prompted most others to back away from seeking this coveted post.

Then an even stronger aftershock hit last week. Minutes before the Republican caucus was to determine who the new candidate would be ‒ McCarthy, presumably ‒ McCarthy himself halted the proceedings by declaring that he was withdrawing his name from consideration. His rationale was that he was not the right person for the job of pulling this fractious caucus together … though tongues have since been wagging about the “real” reasons.

Meantime Boehner has indicated that the vote for his replacement would be postponed to an undetermined date. He also has pledged to remain speaker until a replacement is selected. Thus the structure will remain in place until an orderly transition can occur. During the recent IBA Annual Washington Trip, when 35 Indiana bankers visited Mr. Boehner’s office, he provided us with a little history lesson. To the surprise of many, including myself, the role of speaker of the House does not have to go to a member of the House. The speaker can be anyone that the House members elect. Could this be that moment in history when a non-House member is elected? I doubt that will happen, but we may be closer than we have ever been to that occurring. Since being educated by Mr. Boehner, I have been noticing that some of the names being put forward as contenders are not current House members.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Yes, the House is in for a significant change regarding whoever ends up being speaker. But after a few weeks, we will be back to wondering if Congress is going to do its work, or if the government will be shut down, or how the next crisis will be handled. Even at the highest levels of our government, the more things change, the more they stay the same ‒ but it will be interesting in the interim!

– S. Joe DeHaven

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