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House Republicans try to choose a speaker


Will Kevin McCarthy become the next speaker of the House? (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Hold on to your hats and sunglasses, folks. There’s a cyclone of crazy swirling among the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives. As they sit precariously perched on the precipice of a very narrow majority, we can expect more fireworks than on New Year’s Eve. And while this show promises to be just as loud, it’s likely to be a lot less pretty. 

There was a time not that long ago (most of the last 100 years, give or take) when Republicans were considered the party of discipline and Democrats the party of “circular firing squads,” civil wars, or whatever other synonym for dysfunction was preferred. These stereotypes were unfair only insofar as they were a bit of an exaggeration, but they were based on some kernels of truth. 

As far back as the 1920s and ’30s, the humorist Will Rogers made a living commenting on Democratic disunity. He famously quipped, “I’m not a member of any organized political party … I’m a Democrat.” And “Democrats never agree on anything, that’s why they’re Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they’d be Republicans.” His quotes have been referenced time and again by political reporters in more recent decades, too. 

We can point to a lot of reasons for the dysfunction. Democrats have become a “big tent” party, and big tents are held up with a lot of different poles. A bigger tent makes room for more religions, races, and social identities, which can bring competing ideologies but certainly different lived experiences and personal perspectives. Democrats are also more liberal and thus challenge the status quo, while conservatives try to preserve it.

We could go on and on — entire political science careers have focused on this issue — but we won’t. Because right now the narrative has flipped more dramatically than an O’Henry short story.

For several years running, Democrats in the House have been largely united in both the majority and the minority under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi. This cohesion has produced a stunning list of legislative accomplishments (and successful resistance to Republican presidential initiatives like privatization of Social Security). When Pelosi and other senior party leaders stepped down after the 2022 midterms, we might have expected a wild free-for-all for their replacements. But those elections contained about as much drama as the ones in North Korea. 

Instead, it is the Republicans who are being pulled in multiple directions by a caucus wearing chaos as a badge of honor. At the time of this writing, it doesn’t seem that Kevin McCarthy has locked up the votes for speaker. Even if he gets there, he might have had to make so many concessions that his daily hold on leadership would be as tenuous as a candle flame in a hurricane. He has few votes to spare. That’s why his retaining the likes of George Santos, the man who lied about his entire resume and family history, is so important. 

Stepping back from the machinations of House leadership, the battle McCarthy faces and embodies is a symptom of a more fundamental rot within the Republican Party. In the coverage of McCarthy’s winding path to speaker, most of what we hear about is power, not policy. For what does McCarthy stand? What does he want to do with the speakership? What about his supporters? And what about the band of Republican holdouts seeking to exact their pound of flesh?

For that matter, what legislation did the most recent Republican president want to pass with his power? What were his priorities other than a border wall and “owning the libs”? And what of those of Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders in Congress? Tax cuts, for sure. And stacking the federal judiciary. The courts offer a way for Republicans to get the policies they want without having to legislate — from partisan gerrymandering to abortion bans to gutting environmental regulations. 

Whatever one thinks about the Democrats’ agenda, one cannot deny that they like passing bills and want majorities in the House and Senate to do just that. Using the legislative branch to legislate: what a concept. Democrats have compromised with Republicans to get the votes they needed. They’ve even voted against their short-term political self-interest — as with Obamacare, when many Democrats in Congress supported a bill they knew was unpopular at the time and would be used against them in the upcoming elections.  

You hear almost nothing about legislation from Republican representatives these days. It’s all about who is going to have the power and not how they want to use it to help the American people. We can expect investigations into the Biden administration for sure, along with dangerous games of chicken around the debt ceiling, aid to Ukraine, and other pressing issues. Even Newt Gingrich had his Contract with America. This crowd mostly has their Fox News auditions in mind. 

Perhaps this is why Republicans are having such trouble with the speaker vote. Because when you stand for nothing other than the raw exercise of power, the only thing you’re voting on is power itself. And who wants to give that up?

The current fight over Republican House leadership may strike many Americans as boring, “inside the beltway” blather that in the great scheme of things doesn’t really amount to much. But it does, if you believe that our elected representatives in Washington should be deciding substantive policy issues to benefit the country and acting as responsible participants in our constitutional system of checks and balances.

As far removed as this dynamic may seem from the concerns of daily life, it matters. A lot. And there may be ample proof of that in the months and years to come. 

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