If you thought there was chaos in Washington in 2018… well, brace yourself for an even higher level of craziness in the new year.
2019 dawned with many vital government services shut down because their funding was tied up in political knots… controversy and confusion over President Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria… and a new reality on Capitol Hill.
No longer is Congress solely in the hands of the president’s party. Now it is the Democrats who are in charge in the House of Representatives, bringing with them dozens of fresh faces to Washington, and a refusal to march in lockstep with Donald Trump.
Democratic control of the House also brings the prospect of investigations… lots of investigations into issues and potential scandals that the president’s allies in Congress, for the most part, wouldn’t touch.
That does not please Mr. Trump. No how. No way.
In the early days of this new political reality, he has been fairly polite in public, but profane in private. And it seems his only concern is to fulfill the promises he made to his staunchest supporters — which is why we have the government shutdown. He promised them a barrier along the southern border and won’t sign the necessary legislation to end the government shutdown until he gets his way.
800,000 government employees are affected… roughly half are furloughed, the rest — who deliver essential public services — are working without pay until the whole mess is resolved meaning many are now wondering where they will find the money until then to pay for housing and food.
Cosmetic signs of the shutdown are all over Washington. Parks and museums are closed… trash cans on federal lands are filled to overflowing… and the offices in many of the government buildings in the city core are dark.
That was the sight that greeted the new members of Congress as they arrived in the capital city to take their oath of office.
The garbage and the “Closed” signs were a big reminder that things are, well, a mess.
But look a bit closer at those men and women who put their hands on a Bible or Quran or other spiritual books of their choice to take that oath.
This is a Congress of “firsts” — the youngest and most racially diverse in the nation’s history.
At last, we are getting a legislature that looks like America.
You could see it in the House Chamber as Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi — making a return as Speaker — gaveled the new session into order.
The Republican side was made up largely of men in dark suits. But the Democrats were awash in color — a mix of ethnicities, races and genders.
When Nancy Pelosi first came to Congress in 1987, she was one of 24 women in the House. Today, there are a record 102 — 89 Democrats and 13 Republicans.
Among them: the first two Native America women… the first two Muslim-American women and the two youngest women ever elected to Congress (at the ripe old age of 29).
They all, most likely, have wonderful stories to tell. But the one that I think is most compelling is that of the new representative from the 5th Congressional District of Minnesota.
At a time when the White House is clamping down on refugee admissions and declaring an immigration “crisis” at the border, there is much to learn from the life of Ilhan Omar.
When she was a child, her family fled the civil war in her native Somalia. After four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, they eventually made their way to the United States.
“There really hasn’t been a moment since this journey began where I don’t really pinch myself, and think, ‘How did I get here? Is this really happening?” Omar said in a nationally broadcast CBS interview during her first day in Congress.
And then she added: “Currently in our country, really there is, extreme negative rhetoric against Muslims, immigrants, mainly refugees… It is sort of a deliverance of an extreme counter narrative to that. And it says, you know, this country is still a place of hope.”
When Ilhan Omar originally came to the United States, her port of entry was Dulles International Airport, just outside Washington D.C. On January 2nd, 2019, she passed through Dulles again.
There was a picture… and a tweet:
“23 years ago, from a refugee camp in Kenya, my father and I arrived at an airport in Washington DC.
Today, we return to that same airport on the eve of my swearing in as the first Somali-American in Congress.
One of the first acts of the new Congress was to rescind a ban on head coverings in the House chamber so Omar could wear a hijab. The old rule, put in place long ago to bar the then all-male members from wearing their formal top hats while legislating, was scrapped as an act of welcome.
Ilhan Omar wears her hijab — usually a bright almost turban-like wrapped headscarf — with pride and a smile. You can see it in another photo she tweeted — this one with Ayanna Pressley, the first African-American woman ever elected to the House from the state of Massachusetts:
“At this moment, somewhere in the world, young girls and women who look like us are learning to believe that they too can change the world and that no dream is too big.
They are words of wisdom in the midst of a Washington mess.
A former refugee turned Congresswoman reminds us all to dream big.
How incredibly American.