Legislative activity has screeched to a halt in the U.S. House of Representatives, but it’s not because of a government shutdown that many lawmakers were resigned to before Congress approved a short-term spending bill last weekend.
The House is instead paralyzed because — for the first time in its history — lawmakers gave the boot to the Speaker of the House.
Ironically, Kevin McCarthy lost his job in part because he was willing to rely on Democrats to get the votes needed to approve the continuing resolution needed to avert the shutdown.
Polls routinely show Congress is held in low regard in Congress, but the current drama has taken the House to a new low.
Republican lawmakers themselves are venting, calling it a “clown show,” “chaos,” dysfunctional,” and words likely to be shouted out in R-rated dramas.
“What is going on? I keep wondering what is going on. Are we redefining what conservative is?” McCarthy ally Rep. Garrett Graves, a Republican from Louisiana, said with exasperation on Tuesday on the House floor. “What’s going on in this country today? What’s going on in this body?”
What’s going on is a transformation of the traditional body politic, which used to have guardrails that caused junior members of Congress to defer to more senior members and the chairs of powerful committees. That’s not the case any longer.
The 24-hour mediascape, with its political echo chamber and social media trolls, has contributed to the rise of individual lawmakers, who gain popularity and raise money by going rogue. Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Republican Florida lawmaker who caused McCarthy to lose his job through his motion to vacate, exemplifies this trend.
As Graves pointed out, Gaetz was fundraising off his effort, sending out requests for money from his supporters as the House considered taking historic action.
For his part, Gaetz makes no apologies for that.
“I’ll be happy to fund my political operation through the work of hardworking Americans $10 and $20 and $30 at a time,” Gaetz said. “And you all keep showing up at the lobbyist fundraisers and see how that goes for you.”
Gaetz is a strong supporter of former President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly shattered political barriers, clearing the way for others who defy the rules of traditional politics.
Rise of the tea party, House Freedom Caucus
Before Trump became president, the seeds of uncompromising dissent were sown by members of the tea party, a movement in the U.S. that opposes the Washington political establishment and espouses conservative and libertarian philosophy, including reduced government spending, lower taxes and reduction of the national debt and the federal budget deficit.
Frustration over trying to corral its conservative members eventually caused then House Speaker John Boehner to resign in 2015, after various battles and a government shutdown in 2013.
Then-Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, was the last lawmaker to make a motion to vacate the chair, which came as Boehner struggled with hard-liners. It didn’t come to a floor vote, but it was another sign of conservatives flexing their political muscle.
Meadows was one of the founders of the House Freedom Caucus, the most far-right part of the Republican conference. He later became chief of staff to Trump.
The House Freedom Caucus grew out of the tea party movement and its first chairman was Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan.
Jordan, along with House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, said Wednesday that they will each seek to become the next House Speaker.
McCarthy, like Boehner, struggled to meet the demands of the hard right in the GOP conference.
Ultimately, just eight GOP lawmakers were able to force McCarthy to lose the speakership, with the help of Democrats who had no interest in handing him a political lifeline.
‘Burn the whole place down’
Before McCarthy was forced out, the right wing of his party put him in a political vice in the days before the struggle over a possible government shutdown came to a head.
Even after he included several of their priorities in a GOP-sponsored short-term spending bill, they rebelled. On a procedural vote, they wouldn’t even let the party’s own legislation move forward.
“This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down,” McCarthy said. “That doesn’t work.”
Currently, the House is literally not working because it can’t when the lower chamber has no Speaker.
“We find ourselves in a dangerous situation,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday, noting Congress will be facing another budget showdown in about 40 days.
“Until Republicans stop their infighting, the House can vote on no bills. No appropriations work can get done, Schumer said. “If, God forbid, some national crisis were to occur that demands immediate action, the House would be unable — unable — to quickly respond.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged House Republicans to get rid of the rule that allows a single lawmaker to make a motion to vacate — which is what led McCarthy’s loss of the speakership.
Partisanship is always a part of politics on Capitol Hill, but the latest events go well beyond the usual showdowns between Democrats and Republicans. At the moment, House Republicans have shown an inability to govern.
The next House Speaker, whoever it turns out to be, will have to determine a way to work at some level with moderate Republicans and Democrats — and not just appease the right flank. Otherwise, the nation is highly likely to be staring down another government shutdown, and yet another political crisis right before Thanksgiving.