All of the hand wringing over the failure of the Republican members of the 118th Congress to choose a speaker is a little overblown. The national headlines are almost apoplectic, as though we will spend the next two years without a speaker.
Let me remind you: It’s only been two days. The country will survive the intrigue a little longer.
What is it about seeing intra-party conflict out in the open that makes us so uncomfortable? What we’re actually seeing is a healthy democracy in action. It’s always been untidy and fractious, but usually that part plays out behind closed doors. A little sunlight shining on the mess could actually be instructive.
The so-called “Never Kevin” representatives probably have some personal complaints about California Rep. Kevin McCarthy — legitimate or not — but several of them are raising concerns over rule changes that have affected the way congressional power is allocated. House leaders centralized control in the speaker’s office, they argue, giving rank and file members less power and fewer options to weigh in during the legislative process.
Of course there are those who are taking this opportunity to try and seize the limelight. We see you Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Lauren Boebert, R.Colo. But there are others who seem genuinely concerned about how to properly conduct the business of the American people, as they should be.
Some will point to Ronald Reagan’s infamous “11th commandment” — “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” But while first invoking the directive in 1966, it also didn’t take Reagan long to break it. He primaried fellow Republican Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential campaign, criticizing him over a host of issues.
And consider: this may be the only time — during the election of a speaker, in a House with a very narrow margin between the parties — that lawmakers who want change have an opportunity to try to shake things up. Once leadership is in place, there’s very little incentive for those leaders to make changes that might strip them of power.
Past leaders like outgoing Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi have had every incentive to consolidate power to leadership in order to tame an often unruly body of lawmakers. And while that may lead to getting more done, it doesn’t always lead to prudent lawmaking.
Watching how Congress processes legislation like the $1.7 trillion bill that passed in December is frustrating for many Americans. There were only days that passed between when the full text of the bill was released to the public, and even made available to most members of Congress, and when the bill was passed.
On Sunday, McCarthy released a list of concessions in an effort to appease the holdouts —including changing the number of members of Congress it takes to trigger a vote on the speaker, ending the use of proxy voting in most cases, and new requirements for voting on tax bills — but the detractors said it was too little too late.
In November, one of the key McCarthy holdouts — Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs — held a hearing in conjunction with FreedomWorks on rule changes he and other Freedom Caucus members would like to see.
“Under current House rules, 430 or 435 members have no true opportunity to provide input into major legislation considered in the House of Representatives,” Biggs reportedly said at the time. “The current autocratic and leadership-driven process robs us, and more importantly our constituents, of the ability to participate meaningfully in the legislative process.”
By waiting until the last minute to try to cut a deal with Biggs and other conservative Republicans, McCarthy hurt himself.
The look on McCarthy’s face as he continued to lose on ballot after ballot on Tuesday and Wednesday was hard to watch. But at some point, in order to move forward, he may have to let go of his dream of being speaker. That’s no small thing. He lost the opportunity once before, in 2015, when he was the heir apparent.
Eventually he might have to face up to the fact that he just doesn’t have the votes. In a Congress with a larger Republican cushion, maybe he could stick it out and win a few more supporters, but it increasingly appears as though he doesn’t have a pathway open to him.
In the meantime, seeing lawmakers openly debate how they conduct business should be viewed as a welcome change by voters and journalists alike.