Fitting bookends framed the House Republicans’ first week of majority control/not control in a new Congress. Between them is a story of the party’s radicalism and dysfunction — past, present and, almost certainly, future.
Aptly, the week ends on the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump attack on the Capitol. It is a reminder that in one of House Republicans’ first acts of the previous Congress, two-thirds of them — two-thirds! — voted within hours of the failed coup to do just as the insurrectionists wanted: to overturn electoral votes for President-elect Joe Biden. Most of those Republicans are still in power, reinforced by newly elected election deniers. Several of them, evidence now suggests, allegedly plotted with the defeated Donald Trump to keep him in power, even by force (“Marshall Law!”).
Biden planned to mark the Jan. 6 anniversary at the White House by awarding the Presidential Citizen Medal to a dozen state officials, election workers and police who, unlike Republicans from Trump down, defended the Capitol and democracy. House Republicans have no plans to observe the date; they vow instead to investigate the investigators of the nation’s Jan. 6 betrayal.
As for how this week began? Republicans humiliatingly made history right off the blocks, as the first House majority in a century to fail to elect a speaker with a single roll call. Vote after vote, day after day, they exposed their divisions and all but confirmed their insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.
Republican “leader” Kevin McCarthy, who’s dreamed of becoming speaker since he arrived in Washington from Bakersfield, California, 16 years ago, sat with a game grin through his nationally televised embarrassment, even when he was mocked by his far-right foes speaking into a mic just feet away.
Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, apparently undaunted by her near-rejection in the midterm elections, noted Trump’s calls to her and other Never-Kevin zealots telling them “to knock this off” and support “My Kevin.” She defiantly suggested Trump call McCarthy instead and tell him to withdraw.
So much for the power of Trump’s vaunted endorsement, which McCarthy sold his soul to obtain. After Trump posted “VOTE FOR KEVIN” on his social network, McCarthy just kept losing by near-identical tallies.
However inconsequential it proved, Trump’s attempt to put his thumb on the speakership scale, and McCarthy’s welcoming of his aid, shattered another political norm. Historically, neither current nor former presidents have intervened in congressional leadership elections — nor have lawmakers sought their help — out of deference to Congress’ constitutional status as an independent branch of government and a check on the executive, not a parliamentary partner.
One thing is all but certain after the absurd uncertainty of the week: Dysfunction will be a hallmark of the Republican-controlled House going forward. The same narrow majority that allowed the anti-McCarthyites to hold the institution hostage this week portends more cabals willing to block congressional action repeatedly, not least on the spending and debt-limit measures essential to keeping the government open and the world’s largest economy stable.
Along with their slim majority, the radicalism of today’s Republicans spells trouble ahead for governance.
Their humiliation this week is a consequence of a nihilism that party leaders have sowed for more than a generation, dating to the time of Newt Gingrich’s “revolution” in the mid-’90s, through the tea-party years to the Trump takeover. When Republicans and their right-wing media allies feed voters anti-establishment and anti-compromise red meat, they reap a base that’s hooked on the stuff.
And yet, once Republicans win power in Washington, by definition the revolutionaries become the establishment and must compromise to govern. But the radicalized base doesn’t buy it, and the newly powerful eventually are pushed out.
For a quarter of a century now, we’ve watched a succession of Republicans rise only to be brought down by pressure from the right: former speakers Gingrich, John A. Boehner and Paul D. Ryan; former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. And now, McCarthy, who even if he prevails has conceded so much power to his antagonists that he likely will be doomed to a short run as speaker.
As a former Gingrich revolutionary once told me, after quitting Congress in exasperation with members of his ever more radical party: “They don’t give a damn about governing.”
Gingrich this week called McCarthy’s foes “20 deranged disrupters.” He wondered: Have they “answered — or even thought about — the question: ‘And then what?’” (Republican leaders once tormented by a disruptive younger Gingrich must have rolled in their graves.)
For a radicalized Republican base that’s been a generation in the making, and for its anti-establishment foot soldiers in Congress, it’s all fight, all the time. And so it was that the new House Republican majority failed for days to perform its first, essential task of governance: electing a speaker.
One lengthy roll call after another, the House clerk read the words previously so unfamiliar at the opening of a Congress: “A speaker has not been elected.” Even the House chaplain seemed to have had enough; in opening one session, she prayed, “Free us from intransigence and impudence.”
Amen? Don’t count on it.
For the next two years, we’re all going to be captive to the intransigence that McCarthy helped stoke.