Handful of Slackers Paralyze Congress
Only slightly less well known than the maxim, “never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line,” is this one: every group project has at least one slacker. Those slackers are paralyzing Congress at a time when congressional action is urgent. Despite technically holding a majority in the U.S. House, Republicans are unable to get anything done, and the country is taking notice.
Eight Republicans joined Democrats last week in voting to remove Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from the speakership, the first time a U.S. House Speaker has been removed in a Motion to Vacate (MTV). The vote threw the House into chaos, as the chamber’s rules require a speaker to conduct business on the floor, and the GOP rebels didn’t have a replacement candidate in mind.
If that sounds like déjà vu, it’s because Republicans already gathered on Tuesday for the same purpose, voting 113-99 to nominate Majority Leader Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) over Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). However, Scalise withdrew from consideration by Thursday after it became clear he could not gain the support of 217 Republicans — the number required to reach a majority of the House of Representatives (with two vacancies, the House’s current membership number stands at 433).
Admittedly, Republicans are attempting to govern with a historically small majority of only 221 representatives, which would require nearly every member to be on board with any decision.
However, there’s another phenomenon at play that makes it even more difficult for any Republican to gain the support of a majority of the House. Those quick at math might notice that only 212 Republicans voted for either Scalise or Jordan in the Tuesday vote, and only 205 voted for either Jordan or Scott in the Friday vote. That means that nine to 18 (see below) Republicans didn’t vote to nominate anyone as speaker when members cast a secret ballot.
Not that those members were absent. In the same meeting, the Republican caucus voted down a different resolution 135-88, according to Roll Call. (Again, those quick at math will notice that this vote totaled 223; the non-voting delegates representing American Samoa, Guam, and Puerto Rico caucus with the 221 voting Republican members.)
Late Friday, Republicans nominated Jordan as the new nominee for speaker, but he also fell short of the 217 he would need to win on the House floor.
So, nine to 12 Republican representatives simply refused to choose anyone as House speaker when given an opportunity to do so on a secret ballot. These members didn’t even vote to nominate one of themselves!
Political hacks often weaponize rhetoric about their legislative opponents “not doing their jobs” when their preferred policies are defeated. But members of Congress refusing to choose a House Speaker is them “not doing their jobs” in the most literal sense. Choosing a speaker is a prerequisite to the House conducting any other business. This is like a person failing a test because they refused to even pull out a pencil and paper.
Some right-wing voices will respond here, perhaps half jokingly, that Americans are better off while Congress is on an extended vacation. But, as much as I may sympathize with the sentiment, that’s not actually true. Without Congress’s restraining hand, the administrative state will continue its expansion unchecked. Alternatively, eventually, even the military won’t be funded. The logical conclusion of that argument is total anarchy (which literally means “without a ruler”) and a rejection of the U.S. Constitution itself.
In any event, it’s unlikely that total government dysfunction is what the voters want. Granted, many people are dissatisfied with Washington. But that’s because they want to see the border secure, the deficit contained, Israel supported, and the economy left alone to grow. All of those require at least some sort of action from Congress, even if it’s unlikely to happen in the current political environment. The American people are sick and tired of performative politicians wrecking the country to aggrandize their own personal brands — and that’s exactly what is happening in this speaker shutdown. In times like these, a speaker-less House is a frivolity in which we cannot afford to indulge.
In all fairness, a handful of slackers couldn’t halt Congress on its own. The Democratic minority also played a role in ousting Speaker McCarthy, and they will likely not help Republicans to elect a new speaker. But that’s because Republican failures only help their party. If Democrats keep playing a shrewd game, they might even find a way to break into the ruling coalition, despite being in the minority.
That ultimate endgame exposes the true folly of the Republican recalcitrants. If moderate Republicans find an urgent reason to restart the House at all costs — say, next month, when another government shutdown looms — is it inconceivable they will partner with Democrats? The Democrats only need six Republicans to vote with them. It’s not clear what, or who, this handful of members is holding out for. But what they risk is losing a conservative majority for a much more progressive one.
In the House of Representatives, which has 435 seats, governing is a group project. There’s always been a few slackers, but the majority usually has breathing room to lose a few members on each vote. Right now, Republicans have four votes more than a bare majority, and several times as many members willing to grind the gears to a halt for no point at all. If these members wanted to persuade voters to give the House back to the Democrats in 2024, they couldn’t find a better way to do it.
Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.