For the first time in history, the chaplain of the House of Representatives has been fired. Our two questions, naturally, are: A) Why? And B) Can we blame Donald Trump?
We do not normally spend a heck of a lot of time dwelling on the House chaplain, since his (or theoretically, her) job is just to give an opening-of-the-session prayer and provide private counseling to members and the House staff.
Now, Patrick Conroy, the Jesuit priest who’s been chaplain for nearly seven years, is on his way out. A lot of people are shocked. “Washington can be a very mean place,” said Trump on Friday. “A nasty place.”
Actually, the president was not talking about Conroy, but Ronny Jackson, his own doomed nominee for the job of running the Veterans Affairs Department. The two career catastrophes would be similar only if Conroy had been appointed despite a lack of experience in praying.
So this time the leading man is House Speaker Paul Ryan. Conroy told The Times’ Elizabeth Dias that he recently got a message from Ryan, requesting his resignation, with no reason given. His last day is May 24.
One possible spark for Ryan’s wrath is an interview Conroy gave recently in which he was quoted as saying that many people who get elected to Congress “don’t know how to say hello in the hallway” let alone work well with a staff. Perhaps the article will be followed up with a second interview on lawmakers’ ability to take criticism.
Otherwise, the best explanation anyone has come up with is that the priest was being punished for a prayer he gave last November, at the opening of a debate on the Republican tax bill. Conroy asked the Almighty to make sure that the members’ efforts “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
Clearly a hostile act.
“Invoking fairness if you’re a chaplain is apparently a firing offense,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., who’s been leading a pro-Conroy rebellion.
Actually, the idea that Conroy was being fired for asking God for a fair tax bill is one of the more palatable explanations for Ryan’s behavior. A popular alternative is that some non-Catholic lawmakers were just getting tired of having a priest in the job.
Rep. Mark Walker, a conservative Republican who is co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, stirred up a squall when he suggested the next chaplain should be a family man, with a wife and “adult children.” Clearly, that’s going to eliminate any new Jesuits. (Asked for comment, Walker’s office said he was “not excluding any faith or denomination.”)
House members staged a very short uprising Friday, with a passel of Democrats and a couple of Republicans calling for an investigation. Those of you who are aware of the way the House of Representatives functions will not be stunned to hear that the motion was rather quickly snuffed out by a mostly party-line vote.
Connolly is now going around quoting Henry II, who, legend tells us, asked “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” just before some of his loyal soldiers ran off and murdered the politically difficult archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Henry II is possibly the most often cited man in Washington these days — James Comey said that line was just what he thought of when Donald Trump asked him to do something about that irritating Michael Flynn investigation.
It cannot possibly be a good sign that an ancient invitation to homicide is coming up so frequently. But you have to admit this time the quote works pretty well, what with the actual priest and all.
Ryan, who’s been vague about his motives, apparently did complain about the tax prayer. (Conroy says he told him, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”) But that was last year. Why do you think this is all happening now, when the 115th Congress is nearly over?
Possibly there’s a growing Republican hysteria around that tax bill. They were so proud of it, and it’s virtually the only thing Republicans have accomplished. Now, they’re going back to their districts to run for re-election and discovering that most voters are unenthralled.
So getting rid of Conroy might have been an exercise in pique. (And if you happen to hear a Republican member of Congress is bragging about tax cuts, feel free to yell, “If they’re so good, why did you fire that priest?”)
Otherwise, the timing is a mystery. Ryan himself is leaving Congress at the end of the year. When he announced his retirement, some malcontents muttered that he ought to step down from the speaker’s job now and give someone else a turn. No way. “I intend to run through the tape, to finish the year,” said the man who loves everything about physical fitness, including metaphors.
“Paul Ryan’s giving himself that luxury,” said Connolly. “Why wouldn’t you give it to the chaplain?”
One possibility is that Republicans who actually care about the identity of the House chaplain think this speaker needs to make the appointment because they’re going to lose big in November and the next one will be a Democrat.
Another is that Ryan has simply been driven crazy trying to deal with the Trump White House, the president’s strange, unsettling behavior and his endlessly contradictory comments. Maybe he just felt a need to act out.
Let’s go with that explanation. It makes as much sense as anything, and we can pin Chaplaingate on you-know-who.
Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach her c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service