Charles Dickens introduced us to Ebenezer Scrooge in his counting house on the eve of the Christmastide. Two gentlemen were soliciting alms for the poor. Scrooge refused them, arguing that those who had fallen on hard times could be sent to workhouses or hard labor on a prison treadmill. “Many would rather die than go,” suggested one of the charity workers. Scrooge’s reply set the chilling tone of the opening pages of “A Christmas Carol.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Dickens penned those words 175 years ago. Were he around today, and seeking a crueler character, the author would surely settle on House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Last week, when the whole world was demanding urgent action to end the Saudi-led bombardment and starvation of Yemen, the Janesville Republican used all of his considerable authority to block an urgent response to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Ryan was not acting in the interest of partisanship or ideology. As the speaker was preventing action in the House, seven Senate Republicans — including some of the chamber’s most conservative members — joined Democrats in a 56-41 vote for S.J.Res. 54: “A joint resolution to direct the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress.”
The sponsor of the Senate resolution, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, announced, “Today we tell the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia that we will not be a part of their military adventurism.” This, said Sanders, was the necessary response to Saudi abuses that have fostered a “humanitarian and strategic disaster” in Yemen — a crisis so severe that United Nations officials say it could lead to the worst famine in a century.
No such announcement came from the House, where Ryan did the bidding of the Trump administration and the Saudi regime this president serves. Ryan refused to concern himself with reports on what the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund described as “a war on children.”
“Yemen has become a hell on earth for millions of children. Today every single boy, every single girl in Yemen is facing extremely dire need,” said UNICEF regional director Geert Cappelaere, who reported that, on average, a child is dying every 10 minutes in Yemen — a country where more than 400,000 children are starving and an additional 1.5 million are acutely malnourished.
Ryan went to extraordinary ends to prevent discussion of a change in U.S. policy that might cause the Saudis to relent. The speaker and his allies attached a clause to a measure related to the farm bill, which effectively blocked action on a Yemen bill that Congressmen Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Mark Pocan, D-town of Vermont, have been advancing in tandem with the Sanders initiative in the Senate.
The measure was approved by a 206-203 vote, with overwhelming support from Ryan’s caucus.
“For the second time in less than a month, Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders in the House have opted to undermine our democracy by slipping a rule to block a vote on ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen into an entirely unrelated bill,” explained Paul Kawika Martin of the group Peace Action. “They have once again taken the position that ending or even debating the U.S. role in the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet is not worth serious consideration, even as the United Nations warns the war-induced famine in Yemen could soon become the worst famine in 100 years.”
Khanna was outraged. “This is why people hate Congress,” the congressman declared. “Speaker Ryan is not allowing a vote on my resolution to stop the war in Yemen because many Republicans will vote with us and he will lose the vote. He is disgracing Article 1 of the Constitution, and as a result, more Yemeni children will die.”
The urgency of the circumstance in Yemen — the poorest country in the region — has inspired activists to launch a #YemenCantWait campaign. As Khanna explained, “Fourteen million people are on the brink of famine in Yemen. Eighty-five thousand children have already died from cholera and starvation. Our Yemen War Powers Resolution can’t wait until 2019.”
But the resolution will have to wait until Ryan steps down and Democrats take charge of the chamber in January. No speaker of the House has ever ended his tenure on so shameful a note.
Warning that Ryan and his caucus were “condemning more Yemeni civilians to die horrible deaths, and condemning our nation as a democracy in name only,” Peace Action’s Martin observed that “history will not look kindly on those who abdicated their constitutional duty to debate and vote on our nation’s wars in the name of petty politics and shoring up future campaign contributions from the arms industry and pro-Saudi lobbyists.”
But history did anticipate Ryan.
In the opening stave of "A Christmas Carol," Dickens described Scrooge as a man who walked the paths of human life “warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”
Dickens imagined a change of heart that finally redeemed the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner.” Let us pray, in this Christmastide, that Paul Ryan is similarly inspired — as his actions of late would send a chill down the spine of Ebenezer Scrooge.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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