Voices: As GOP’s House speaker civil war rages, Biden reminds us what government can do

President Joe Biden talks with reporters outside of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn. Biden is heading to Kentucky to visit a notoriously dilapidated bridge connecting Ohio and Kentucky to promote his administration's infrastructure law. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (AP)
President Joe Biden talks with reporters outside of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn. Biden is heading to Kentucky to visit a notoriously dilapidated bridge connecting Ohio and Kentucky to promote his administration's infrastructure law. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (AP)

The Cincinnati skyline is indelibly stamped on my mind, despite the fact that I’ve never lived in the city Winston Churchill once described as “the most beautiful of the inland cities of the Union.” From the time I was born I would join my family as we drove from Dayton, Ohio – where they had relocated a quarter-century before my birth – to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee. This was the “Hillbilly Highway,” and like millions of other Appalachians, the road to “down home” ran straight through the heart of the Queen City.

It wasn’t just Appalachian out-migrants crossing the Brent Spence Bridge, a double decker truss bridge on Interstate 75 crossing the Ohio River and connecting the Buckeye State with the Bluegrass State. The Hillbilly Highway, at least the part of it in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, could just have been called America’s Economic Expressway. The Brent Spence Bridge carries $1 billion in freight every day. A full 3 percent of our nation’s GDP crosses that bridge every year.

Despite being vitally important to our nation’s economy and transportation, the Brent Spence Bridge has long been considered America’s worst piece of infrastructure. First built in 1963, the bridge was never designed for the amount of traffic crossing it – 168,000 every day according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Accidents – more than 121 in 2015 alone – are common. Rust is a recurrent problem. In 2020, the bridge caught on fire.

It makes sense, then, that President Joe Biden would choose to travel to Northern Kentucky today to join with Kentucky’s Democratic Governor, Andy Beshear, and Ohio’s Republican Governor, Mike DeWine – along with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – to tout the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which he signed into law last year. $1.6 billion in federal funding will be invested into repairing this important piece of America’s roadways. In doing so, Biden managed what so many of us who rely on the bridge to do our jobs and see our families have asked for years. He, in his own words, “fixed that damn bridge.”

That Biden managed to do it with a razor thin majority in the Senate makes it an even more remarkable accomplishment. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is more commonly known as the bipartisan infrastructure bill both because it’s true – 13 House Republicans and 19 Senate Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the law – and because it’s so rare these days that any landmark legislation passes with bipartisan support. It is a massive accomplishment. Presidents of both parties before had wanted but failed to secure the votes to fix the Brett Spence Bridge.

Biden’s appearance in Cincinnati with his Republican rival Mitch McConnell, then, reminds us not only of how expertly he and Democratic leadership in Congress were in getting this bill passed, but of what Congress can accomplish when it actually does its job. Government has the power to improve the lives of the American people. Yet Congress isn’t working right now. As I write this, I’m watching Kevin McCarthy lose his fourth vote to become speaker of the House of Representatives. The Republicans, now with their own razor thin majority in the lower chamber, cannot agree on who should lead them and therefore the People’s House. Instead, the have devolved into internecine warfare with one another and we the people are caught in the crossfire.

This all stems from a backbench rebellion against McCarthy’s leadership. While Democrats have seamlessly elected their own brand-new leadership team, the far right of the Republican Party has flexed its muscle to prevent him from taking the gavel.

The reasons why are not so much political as personal. There are no ideological differences between McCarthy and the hard right. He has done everything the far right could hope he would do. Rather, this is about personal interests, personal grudges, and personal power. People like Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert have longstanding grudges against McCarthy for stymying their own desire for power and not doing more to obstruct. They are agents of chaos doing what they came to Washington to do – sow dissent and disruption.

As a registered Democrat and a socialist, I enjoy it when the right cannibalizes their own. So I can understand tweets like that by Illinois Democrat Robin Kelly, who claimed she had “her popcorn ready” as she went into the votes yesterday. The problem is this isn’t just a problem for Republicans. It’s a problem for all of us.

No House business can occur until a speaker is elected. That includes swearing in representatives, meaning that there is currently no House of Representatives to speak of. Given the myriad issues facing the United States at this moment – three respiratory viruses leading to increased hospitalizations, a war in Ukraine, increasing tensions in the Far East, inflation and possible recession – this is not just a matter of inconvenience. It is a matter of national security.

Yet Republicans are putting their own pettiness above the needs of the American people. That is frightening. Even if business were to occur, I have no confidence that the Republicans could agree enough to pass a bill declaring the sky is blue. How will they ever raise the debt ceiling, for example, if they can’t even agree on who should be in charge?

Democrats, I’d say. That is the message Joe Biden is subtly sending in Kentucky. By going to the bridge no one but he could fix, the president is reminding the country what competent governance looks like. When adults are in charge, things get done. Beyond that, though, we are seeing the results of two different American political philosophies: one from the far right that puts personal interests over national needs and one from Democrats that puts the collective interests of the American people first by delivering legislation and competent governance.

Let us remember this in 2024, when these petulant children playing at being legislators again ask to be in charge of the People’s House. Joe Biden fixed the damn bridge. Republicans can’t even fix themselves.