Reflections from the River

Electing a speaker isn't really important, is it?

January 04, 2023 Bill Enyart
Reflections from the River
Electing a speaker isn't really important, is it?

Electing a speaker of the house isn’t really important, is it? 

We’ve certainly been afflicted by the ancient Chinese curse. “May you live in interesting times.”

For the first time in over a hundred years the House of Representatives hasn’t been able to elect a Speaker of the House on the first vote, not even on the first day, not even after three votes. And the second day the saga goes on. 

It’s a drama in Washington DC and to the news media and to those of us who follow politics. Since the speaker is second in line to the presidency after the vice-president, foreign capitols are likely to be following it closely also. It doesn’t reach the level of political complexity in Israel or in Italy, but then they aren’t the most powerful country in the world, militarily and economically.

I’m not so sure how closely it’s followed here in Middle America. Here in Southwestern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, the topic is more likely the balmy sixty-nine-degree temperature on the third of January. Or that three young Hispanic men were murdered in less than twenty-four hours in the normally quiet suburban town of Collinsville, Illinois, population twenty-five thousand, where most police calls are for drunk drivers or the occasional shoplifter.

Gasoline is back down to just over three dollars a gallon from its summer high of nearly five dollars a gallon, but eggs are five dollars a dozen up from a buck and a quarter, so its grocery grumbling now more than gas station grumbling.

Women cross over the interstate highway bridges from Missouri to get legal abortions in Illinois, while drivers of both sexes cross the opposite way to get cheap gas. Gas is anywhere from thirty to fifty cents a gallon cheaper on the Missouri side, due largely to higher Illinois gasoline taxes. Illinois residents complain about the higher gas taxes but forget that Missouri residents pay personal property tax on their motor vehicles, which Illinoisans don’t.

None of these issues depend on who is elected speaker of the House of Representatives. Nor will that election have a direct impact on how many acres will get planted in soybeans and how many in corn this spring. I guess one could argue that there will be an indirect impact due to differing trade policies or differing agricultural subsidy policies between potential speakers and the congressmen the speaker selects to serve on the house agricultural committee, but that’s a pretty long way from the decision-making process the farmers I know will use to guess where commodity prices will go and which crop will make them more money.

Most grocery shoppers would say they missed the bet and should have gone with chickens last year. But then you can’t shift from corn and soybeans to chickens like you can from corn to beans or even winter wheat. 

Driving back to Belleville from Carbondale this weekend, we drove past a billboard advertising a five-thousand-dollar sign on bonus for experienced coal miners. First time I’ve ever seen such a sign. Coal mining employment in Illinois, largely Southern Illinois, has dropped from 100,000 miners during World War II to 35,000 miners in 1980 to about 2,700 in 2019.

The coal mining industry blames the environmentalists for that loss, but it is of course far more complicated. There’s increased mechanization. There’s less steel being made in the US, which uses a whole lot of coal. There are power plants moving to cheaper natural gas, which is due to the fracking that environmentalists hate too. 

And, of course, the election of a speaker of the House of Representatives, whether a Republican or Democrat, has no impact on those long-term economic and industrial trends. Now the Republicans will rant that they’re going to save coal-mining jobs by stopping pollution control regulations, while the Democrats will counter that they’re protecting the environment and lives and health by pollution regulations all while they’re growing clean-energy jobs in solar and wind generation, the truth of the matter is they’re riding those waves not controlling them.

The coal mining corporations will give money to the Republicans and the solar folks will give money to Democrats in an attempt to influence policy and support the politicians they view as supporting their industries, the truth of the matter is that energy supply companies are market-driven. They’ll supply power that they can generate the cheapest, so they can make the greatest profit, whether its power provided by burning coal, oil, natural gas, or from wind turbines or solar panels or hydroelectric dams. 

Coal mines were subsidized in the nineteenth century with cheap immigrant labor and strike breaking. The auto industry was subsidized in the twentieth century with road building, parking lots and tax breaks for the oil industry. Today we subsidize the solar industry and wind mills with tax breaks and the ethanol industry with incentives, not to mention electric car tax credits. 

In the nineteenth century we subsidized railroads and barge canals and mass education. All of which helped build the economic engine that is the largest in the world. 

None of which could have happened without legislation. Legislation cannot be enacted without a Speaker of the House, because Congress can take no other action until a Speaker is elected. 

So yeah, maybe electing a speaker is important. Maybe, just maybe those twenty Republicans who are throwing a tantrum until they get their way need to think about the good of the country, the whole country, not just their pet peeves.

This is Bill Enyart with Reflections from the River.


Audio production by Tom Calhoun as

© William Enyart 2023