The new House of Representatives
Last week, Americans elected a record 88 new members to the U.S. House of Representatives – the constitutionally mandated body charged with representing Americans across all walks of life. There are also a record number of women representing millions of constituents, comprising 21% of both chambers of Congress, the highest on record.
Throughout these past few months, the electoral cycle challenged our country. As a people, we have been more introspective and intensive this year than perhaps we have been in a long time. From healthcare to immigration policy, to jobs and trade, candidates seeking public office asked incredibly diverse constituencies to consider the significance of these issues in their own lives.
In the Capitol, the House of Representatives met from 1807 until 1857 in what is now called Statuary Hall. In the floor, small placards mark the spot of the desks of former Members of Congress who became President. In the bustle of a busy day, it’s easy to casually go by the places of the heroic figures of our Republic. Abraham Lincoln served briefly in the House. Reflecting upon his own short term in the House as undistinguished, the future President also noted the impression made upon him by the constant speeches about the evils of slavery by an elder statesman named John Quincy Adams.
President John Quincy Adams is the only member of Congress to be elected after he had been President. After a long career as a diplomat, then President, he considered his final post in the House of Representatives as his favorite. He died in office in 1848. The couch where he died is still in an adjoining room. The abstract idea of America’s early years is made real inside the busy walls of the Capitol.
As I hurried through Statuary Hall this week for a vote, the scene was much different. The violinists of the Marine Corps Orchestra lined the walls of the room playing a beautiful melody. The place where the television crews do their interviews was replaced by a welcoming table with a magnificent spray of roses. Formal dining tables were set up to seat the Americans who have been newly chosen by the citizens to be their representatives for the next two years.
This fanfare, this formality, this dignity is something called tradition. It bridges the past and present, it reminds us of the sacrifice of those before us, and marks-with honor-the demand of the responsibility to govern. Throughout this week, new members have arrived, met with reporters, interviewed future staffers, and vied for various important committee assignments. For a moment, there’s a palpable spirit of collegiality towards one another that most Americans cannot see. I have been congratulated over and over by colleagues and seen others with profoundly different perspectives hug to say good-bye.
The real work commences again shortly, requiring the will to solve our country’s gravest problems, free from the agonizing aggressiveness of political campaigns. For a moment, the pride and unique privilege of being accorded the public trust creates an excitement of renewed possibility.
But I’ve seen it before: Collegiality will quickly fade to divisiveness. Consensus will not be aplenty. The extremes will seek their pounds of flesh with extreme vengeance. The business of Congress should not be a 24/7 four-alarm fire, yet media and social media have engendered a climate of anxiety and unyielding partisanship. It is this that we must resist.
What I can promise is that I will work to advance legislation on our most pressing needs, on health, conservation, national security, and food security. I will ensure that our troops in the field and veterans at home get the support they need. I will support judicious infrastructure projects vital to the nation. Above all, I will continue the work to protect the dignity of all persons and just governance for all people. To find our unity in diversity.