Of Majorities and Modesty

Perhaps with some weeks enough dust has settled to allow a few reactions to the recent American elections, with more perspective than can be gathered from listening to reporters interviewing reporters. I will offer views that focus mostly on the results of the congressional elections, drawing upon experience from more than two decades of work in the Senate.

I do not, however, wish to minimize the importance of the elections for governors and state legislatures. In fact, I suspect that the next President of the United States will more than likely be a current or former governor than a Washington politico. Most Presidents, historically, have come from the state governments, which I find encouraging for our federal system. Moreover, judging from what we have seen, former Senators do not seem to make very good Presidents. I cannot name one to whom we can look with admiration for what he accomplished in the White House. There seems to be too much Washington blindness in them to govern effectively for our whole nation.

I am straying to an election yet to come, though. Back to this year’s results, I will begin with the view that we should expect, with the media-scorned Republicans holding the majority in both House and Senate, that the finger of blame for all problems—real or imagined—will be pointed at “Congress.” Disputes between legislative and executive branches will tend to be cast as exposing the nation to great danger as a result of congressional intransigence and/or “politics,” as if no real issues of policy—no questions of life, freedom, or wealth—are involved.

It is happening already. In one bizarre report I heard this week on a major network “news” report, some Amtrak railroad drawbridge in the northeast is over a hundred years old and prone to getting stuck when it opens to let ships pass. Amtrak wants a billion dollars or so to fix it, but, as the “news” story would have it, Republicans in the new Congress “are not looking for ways to spend money.” That was the story. Note the nothing new here. The bridge has been around for a hundred years and did not suddenly become prone to malfunction this November. But the election has now made it a story; a problem is arising, not because the President or the Democrats in Congress for several years did not seek to fix it, but because the new Republican majorities are not interested in spending money. The bridge is not the problem in the story, the Republicans are. Expect more of this kind of media “news.”

Second observation: in recent decades Congress has increasingly surrendered more and more authority to the executive branch, including to the regulatory agencies. The Senate, under the misleadership of Majority Leader Harry Read, has given up even more power and authority (perhaps in another post I will expound on lessons from the Senate of Rome, which by avoiding decisions paved the way for the Caesars—who were all too ready to make decisions). The Democrats retain full control of the executive branch. No small thing. In the remaining two years of the Obama Administration look for more aggressive activity from the White House and the regulators as they test just what they can try by regulation and regulatory fiat, without any detours to Capitol Hill. To quote Jacob Marley’s ghost, “Much!”

When it comes to big Republican plans to make major changes, the quidnuncs will be fed explanations of the thinness of the Republican majorities, along with the “responsibility” of Republicans to share power with Democrats that the Democrats failed to win at the ballot box. When it comes to work that needs to be done, the repeated common wisdom will be that the Republicans have the majority, so nothing should stop them from getting on with the job. There will be little mention that the President can veto what Congress passes, and that Democrats in the Senate will likely filibuster anything that the White House threatens to veto, saving the President the trouble—and political risk.

Yet, there are things that the Republicans, even with working but not overwhelming majorities in Congress, will be able to do. Most important, they get to set the agenda. They get to decide what issues will be debated, what hearings will be held, what will be put to a vote, even when they may not have the votes to break Democrat opposition in the Senate. It will be some relief that instead of the familiar series of proposals to curb liberties, raise taxes, or stifle economic growth and opportunity, the agenda will tend toward ideas of freedom and prosperity, though actual accomplishments will of necessity be modest against the strong opposition of the President and his media allies. I will take modest improvements over the calamitous policy fails of the past several years.

Of the Power of Change and the Power of Christ

Change is in the air. It is autumn, the leaves have begun their brief flash of color before gliding to the ground to be swept away.

Fall is also the season when politicians promise change. The mood predominating among the electorate this year seems to be disillusionment with Change. They want change from Change—that is, from Change that makes things worse and reinforces what is bad in Washington. At least for now, voters are showing a strong preference for candidates who do not fit the usual political mold, who reject solutions imposed from Washington. Such moments do not come very often, and like the autumn they seem to pass too quickly.

Yet with all of this discussion of the change apparent in nature and the political world, it seems strange to find those who doubt the ability of people to change. Properly understood, the plan of God for His children is all about change.

The central message of Jesus Christ and of all of His prophets has been the need and possibility for people to change, to change their world by changing themselves, from the world of unhappiness and distraction, to a life of purpose, growth, and deep joy. All who have drawn close to the Savior have experienced change, have drawn upon His power to change, and the closer they drew to Him the more that they changed and became more like Him.

Consider the early Apostles who lived while the Savior walked the earth. Mere fishermen (Peter and John) were turned into inspired leaders whose testimonies have endured for two millennia. A tax collector (Matthew) was converted into a human benefactor. A persecuting zealot (Paul) turned into a powerful missionary. In earlier days, a slave (Joseph) became viceroy of Egypt, a fugitive from Pharaoh’s court (Moses) became the mighty lawgiver who led Israel from bondage, a shepherd (David) became King of Israel. The change in these whom history calls great was repeated among millions of their less well-known compatriots.

In our own times, an untaught boy (Joseph Smith) became a wise prophet and religious founder, a craftsman (Brigham Young) became the greatest colonizer of the West. Again, these are more prominent examples among millions of others similarly changed through the power of Christ, the more effectively changed the closer that they approached Him.

When I was in college a friend explained to me her disillusionment with her church, which in her view told its members to be good but somehow lacked the power to transform them. It lacked the power of Christ, who made change of life possible. As the ancient American prophet Mormon explained in a letter to his son, Moroni, through Jesus Christ our sins can be forgiven, our past can be overcome.

And the remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until the end shall come, when all the saints shall dwell with God. (Moroni 8:26)

There is power, the greatest power on earth, the power to change the greatest creations on earth, the children of God. There is the power to transform men and women and make them fit to live with the Father in His presence forever, “that ye may at last be brought to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the holy prophets who have been ever since the world began, having your garments spotless even as their garments are spotless, in the kingdom of heaven to go no more out.” (Alma 7:25) Thank God that power is on the earth.

(First published October 11, 2010)