It would be laughable if it were not so terrifying.
The United States House of Representatives’ inability to elect a Speaker has focused not only the eyes of our country but also those of the entire world on a democratically elected body in danger of self-destruction.
A small minority of extreme House members with single-issue concerns shut the closely divided House down with its toddler-temper-tantrum behavior.
The rest of the members, all Democrats and some moderate Republicans, became the grown-ups in the room, albeit very frustrated ones.
The House show has been world-class political theater, but the reality of this self-inflicted wound is that it could further degrade or kill our already endangered democracy.
It does not have to be this way.
Twenty years ago, the North Carolina House of Representatives faced almost the same dilemma — how to elect a leader in a chamber that was not just closely but evenly divided, 60 Democrats and 60 Republicans. It was high drama, indeed. Republicans started the year with a 61-59 majority, but one Republican switched parties, so it was back to 60-60, with 61 votes needed to elect a Speaker.
Democrats backed the incumbent two-term Speaker, while Republicans squabbled among themselves and the various factions of the party — shades of Washington today.
Voting continued for the first week of the 2003-2004 session, with no candidate receiving 61 votes, which meant, as in Washington, that the House could not conduct any business for the people of North Carolina. By the second week, reality had set in, and Democrats and a group of moderate Republicans agreed on a power-sharing agreement, a co-speakership, one Democrat and one Republican. Each Speaker had his own staff, his own office, and his own gavel. They presided over the House Chamber on alternate days.
It is an interesting historical footnote that Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who presided over the U.S. House’s recent efforts to elect a speaker, was a member of the N.C. House during the co-speakership.
Representatives who served in the N.C. House during the two-year co-speakership remember it as a routine session in which most bills moved along smoothly. Few controversial issues were addressed, however, primarily because if something were too conservative for the Democratic Speaker or too liberal for the Republican Speaker, it was unlikely to see the light of day in a committee, much less on the House floor.
Issues painful for one side or the other were kicked down the road until the House got back to “normal.” It was a time of governing from the center, not from either side, and it was not all bad. There are Americans on both sides of the “extreme,” but most of us, both Democrats and Republicans, are in the moderate middle. The actions of our elected officials should reflect that reality.
A judge once told me he knew he had handled a legal issue fairly if both sides left the courtroom “mildly miffed.”
That is precisely what we need from our U.S. House of Representatives. Legislating is not a contest between two sides. It is our elected public servants acting in the best interests of our state and nation, and if one side does not get its way all the time, the legislative process is working.
The U.S. House should look at what the North Carolina House did two decades ago. It is far preferable to be “mildly miffed” than foaming at the mouth.

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