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In 1957, then Senator John F. Kennedy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, making him the only future president of the United States to receive a Pulitzer Prize. He won for his brief but compelling history of eight U.S. Senators who showed courage in the face of opposition from their party, state legislators and popular opinion. Five of the profiles are connected to an issue that, at the time, was far more contentious than anything our country faces today: slavery. As a government shutdown takes effect today, every Senator and member of the House of Representatives should look to the example of these eight men as a reason to put their interests behind themselves and seek the greater good of the country.
The current government crisis is both a function of an inability to compromise and the result of many occasions over the last four years when compromise eluded the federal government. An inability to pass a budget since 2009, deadlock on healthcare reform, the downgrade of U.S. debt and a failure to move forward on immigration reform have all been endemic of an inability for Republicans and Democrats to compromise. Let’s be honest: a spirit of compromise between the two sides will not come this week. Instead, what is needed are leaders of one or both parties to show courage and curtail the shutdown as quickly as possible.
What makes courage different from compromise? In compromise, both sides of the aisle save face. Republicans get some of the things they want, Democrats get some of the things they want, and both can go back to their parties and constituents with a positive report. Courage is different. A Senator or Congressperson who shows courage in our current situation will almost certainly be unpopular with their party and the citizenry that elected them. However, this courageous person(s), while giving up personal political gain, will have kept the government running and prevented 800,000 federal employees from going home and the Washington DC metropolitan area from suffering a $200 million a day loss.
Both sides of the aisle have a lot to lose in this current battle. If Democrats concede on the Affordable Care Act, they will allow alterations, at gun point, to President Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement. If Republicans are unable to defund, or significantly alter the Affordable Care Act (ACA), they will appear weak and unsuccessful to their many of their constituents. However, if no one relents, it is the American people that lose. In a town that needs both courage and leadership in this pivotal time, we must call for our leaders to put their own political future, and even the future of their party, behind them and to work maintain the government.
In 2001, President Gerald Ford Jr. received the Profile in Courage award for pardoning Richard Nixon of all charges against him related to Watergate. Pardoning Nixon was extremely controversial when it happened, and is believed to have contributed to Ford’s narrow loss to Jimmy Carter. President Ford said the pardon was motivated not by any affection for Nixon, but, “It was the state of the country’s health at home and around the world that worried me.” While the public wanted to see Nixon on trial, Ford felt that the investigation would present too much of a disruption to the actual governing of the country. President Ford risked his political future and the Republican Party’s control of the White House for the good of the country. This kind of courage can reveal a certain level of faith in God (which is not to say that only Christians are courageous and non-Christians are not) to have control over the future. Currently Congress is playing it safe, with each side trying to convince the public that if their position is realized, the country will be better off. It is as if they are saying God will not be sovereign if they don’t get their way. Perhaps the more courageous thing is to say that God is sovereign in spite of our loss, and that it’s time to do what is best for the country.
-Paul Hartge is the Director of Development at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance and is pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. He graduated from Calvin College in 2010 with a double major in political science and religion.