If tradition holds (and who knows about that anymore), on a cold night this February Joe Biden will motorcade from his new home at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. up Capitol Hill, and a new House sergeant-at-arms will proclaim, "Madame Speaker, the president of the United States!" In front of that so-familiar flag, the 46th president will ask a joint session of Congress for unprecedented, bipartisan help in facing the worst domestic crises since FDR and the Great Depression — a race to vaccinate millions of Americans as thousands die daily, amid food lines of the many unable to work.
Yet as Biden looks out over the House chamber, he will see staring back at him the blank faces of 147 lawmakers who just days earlier had voted to suspend not just the basic tenets of U.S. democracy but the very notion of rational truth in voting to halt the certification of the Democrat's election, on utterly unfounded voter fraud claims. And arguably that's not the worst of it.
Sprinkled among those scores of Republican truth-deniers are some who — based on credible allegations and what we already know about the stunning Jan. 6 insurrection that occurred at the U.S. Capitol — met with or gave verbal encouragement to the mob that stormed the building in the rampage that left five people dead. It's likely that the 117th Congress, in its first weeks, will be knee-deep into a Democrat-sought probe into whether some of its members gave tours to the 1/6 rioters the day before, or shared knowledge about how to find the hidden officers of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Biden's likely plea for bipartisanship and unity in the face of the worst pandemic in 100 years will encounter the angry glare of new extremist members like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-QAnon, who — if her words uttered on Newsmax this week can be taken seriously — will have introduced an impeachment resolution against the new president on Jan. 21 — and Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Youcrazy?, if the heat-packing Coloradan hasn't been stopped at the metal detectors.
As the dust settles from Wednesday's unprecedented (and totally warranted) vote to impeach President Donald Trump a second time, in the waning hours of his destructive four-year term, everyday Americans need more help from Washington than any time since 1933. And yet our Congress has never been more divided and wracked by anger and paranoia, understandable since some GOP members sure seemed on the same side as an armed mob that erected a gallows in its fantasies of hanging Democrats.
In a stunning interview with my Inquirer colleague Jessica Calefati, western Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb — one of the most moderate Democrats on Capitol Hill, who calls for working with Republicans and occasionally does so — said his trust is shattered, and that some of his GOP colleagues have "become morally blind to the consequences of their own actions."
The distrust over the insurrection isn't even the end of it. Democrats are also furious over the refusal of many Republicans to take the deadly coronavirus threat seriously and wear masks, with two members — including 75-year-old cancer survivor Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey — and a congressional spouse infected after sheltering with mask-less GOPers during the siege. Among Republicans, Second Amendment zealots like Boebert are furious over the presence of metal detectors that might curb their heat-packing ways. Amid this rancor, an army of 20,000 National Guard troops protects the Capitol in the biggest force since the Civil War, or maybe we should now call it Civil War I.
Living Americans have never seen anything quite like this, although, as Yale historian Joanne Freeman chronicled in her remarkable 2018 book "The Field of Blood," Congress was marred by a stunning number of fistfights, canings and duels in the run-up to that first Civil War. How do we get out of this mess? It won't be easy, but here's a couple of thoughts.
First, Congress will need to separate out the completely unacceptable — direct involvement egging on the murderous mob at the Capitol — from the also-troubling but, arguably, not criminal support for blocking the rightful 2020 election results.
For example, an investigation needs to look at the roles of Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Briggs of Arizona and Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama. In a since-deleted video, Ali Alexander, the right-wing activist who was central in organizing the Jan. 6 events that culminated in the Capitol assault, claims that the three GOP congressmen helped plan the entire affair, including the notion of applying "maximum pressure" to flip Republican votes on certifying Biden's election by "hearing our loud roar from outside."
The House just voted to impeach Trump for inciting the violence. If the claim by Alexander about Gosar — who'd insisted at a December rally that Biden's presidency could be stopped "once we conquer the Hill" — Biggs and Brooks can be confirmed, the three must be expelled from Congress for insurrection. Period, end of story.
But the problems may not end there. On Wednesday, New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill — like Lamb, one of the most centrist and least confrontational Democrats on Capitol Hill — made the stunning allegation, later joined by more than 30 of her colleagues, that some members may have offered "reconnaissance tours" to the soon-to-be-rioters on Jan. 5, the day before. Democrats are demanding a probe of that, and troubling aspects of the attack — insurrectionists knowing where to find the secret offices of Pelosi and Majority Whip James Clyburn, or the panic buttons ripped out of the office of Rep. Ayanna Pressley — that suggest the coup plotters had inside help.
Anyone who aided the coup plotters should be expelled. That would take a two-thirds vote, which would need to include Republicans (although knowing these blood-red districts would send new Republicans to Washington might sway them, if the evidence is damning enough). But there is precedent. During the Civil War, Congress expelled 14 insurrectionists. It's stunning that this would be relevant in America in 2021, but here we are.
But that's only part of the problem. The 117th Congress now includes those 147 Republicans — eight senators and 139 members of the U.S. House — who voted last week, even before the clean-up from the insurrection had begun, to buy into the same American version of The Big Lie that had motivated these rioters and thugs, the complete fantasy that some kind of election fraud denied Trump his rightful victory.
In the days since, I've seen numerous calls from progressives on Twitter for any or all of these 147 to be expelled from Congress. Whatever the moral validity of that argument, it's just not realistic, politically, that two-thirds will kick out the other one-third over their vote, regardless of how harmful it was to democracy. It's a "marshal of the Supreme Court"-level fantasy. Some GOP senators like Missouri's Josh Hawley and Texas' Ted Cruz have seen the largest newspapers in their home states beg them to resign. But they are not going to resign. They will be in the Senate for the next four years, taking votes on whether you get evicted from your apartment or whether you can get a vaccine in time before you get sick.
For many Americans, probably many of the 82 million who voted for Joe Biden, the new Congress is already illegitimate with 147 members on the record as voting against reality. This truly is a Civil War-sized dilemma, and I only see one possible way — admittedly, a long shot, although not quite as unlikely as mass expulsion — out of this bind, short of that second Civil War. Congress needs to create a Truth and Reconciliation process — a commission, perhaps, or even just an open forum — that will allow some or hopefully most to acknowledge Biden's victory, state for there record that there was no election fraud in 2020, and maybe even apologize for saying otherwise.
Last year — before we had any idea the 45th president would incite an insurrection against the U.S. government — some of us called for a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the lies and the anti-democratic policies of the Trump years. For that idea, we were vilified by some right-wingers who acted as if we were proposing a Nuremberg-war-crimes-trial kind of operation. But in fact a Truth and Reconciliation Commission — as successfully pulled off in South Africa and other strife-riven countries — is a chance for finding a common national story, for amnesty and a new beginning.
I'd be shocked if this happened, but I don't know any other peaceful path forward. If Congress doesn't somehow address its growing rift and descent into hatred and fear, a lot more than five Americans will needlessly die, either from an unchecked disease, or from hunger and depredation, or from growing civil conflict. Lincoln was right: A House — and Senate — divided against itself cannot stand. Expel the criminals. Acknowledge the truth. Then reconcile and start tackling America's real problems before it's too late.