Boston College Expert: Speaker of the House & the GOP
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Heather Cox Richardson
Professor of History
Heather Cox Richardson is an expert in nineteenth-century America, specializing in politics and economics. She is the author of five books that have explored the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and the American West, and stretched from the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln to that of Theodore Roosevelt. She is also the founder and co-editor of the web magazine We’re History. Her books The Death of Reconstruction, Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre, and West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War were all selections of the History Book Club; West from Appomattox and To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party were also Editor’s Choice selections of the New York Times Book Review. She is also the author of The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War. Richardson has appeared on C-SPAN, was the subject of a US News & World Report Q&A, is a regular contributor to Salon, and has contributed to Bloomberg, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Huffington Post among other media entities.
With the question over who will assume the Speaker of the House duties still up in the air, a Boston College historian and expert on the Republican Party says with a small group of conservatives wielding considerable power, the fight is about much more than politics -- it’s about the very structure of the American government.
“Essentially we’re at the center of a Constitutional crisis,” says Professor Heather Cox Richardson, author of the 2014 book, To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party. “It’s not just a question of who is going to be Speaker. It’s a matter of having a very small number of extremists trying to force an elected president to change his policies by threatening to shut down the government until he does. This is huge.”
Richardson says the effort of the 40-50 member Freedom Caucus in trying to force President Obama to enact their policies over his own amidst another threat to pull government funding later this year is a strike against the government.
“They’re holding the government hostage,” says Richardson, an expert in nineteenth-century America who specializes in politics and economics. “The issue of whether or not 40-50 people should be able to force a President from another party who was fairly elected to do what they want is not an acceptable procedure under our Constitution.”
The actions are reminiscent of what happened in the 1870s, says Richardson, when former Confederates took control of Congress and shut down the government to force the President to enact their Reconstruction policies rather than the ones of the majority party.
“When that happened, it was a Constitutional crisis. A group of people who had a very strong idea about policy lost an election and rather than abide by the outcome of that election, they simply declared war on the government. And in the 1870s, we were close enough to the Civil War for people to see that this was an attack on the government itself, just as the same men had attacked it on the battlefields in the 1860s.
“Today people are getting tied up in the ‘Who’s it going to be? Which Speaker is it going to be? What’s happening inside the Republican party?’ But this is not just about the Republican Party. It’s about the very structure of the American government. Should 40-50 people be able to force their will on the rest of America by threatening to destroy the government? And the answer to that in our Constitutional system should be, ‘Absolutely not.’”
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