Warnings about the degradation of the House strike a chord with Americans
The 118th Congress convened in Washington, D.C. yesterday and, for the first time in a hundred years, the House failed to elect a Speaker on the first ballot.
It is, in one way, a testament to the strength of the American two-party system that it has taken this long for the problem to arise. The last Congress was also narrowly divided, but Democrat Nancy Pelosi managed to hold the votes of all but two members of her caucus, eking out a narrow win. Many assumed that the same would be true this time as the Republican majority swept in, and that opposition to the presumptive Speaker, California’s Kevin McCarthy, would fade away just as far-Left opposition to Pelosi did in 2021.
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Three rounds of voting later and we see that this is not the case. With 222 Republicans elected and 218 votes needed for a majority, McCarthy had a very small margin for error. On the first ballot, 19 members defected, voting for various other Republicans they deemed more acceptable — and more conservative — than McCarthy.
If anyone thought this was a mere protest vote, the second ballot dispelled the notion: the same 19 refused to vote for McCarthy, this time coalescing around Ohio Republican Jim Jordan as their pick. Jordan, for his part, did not join the defectors and gave a speech nominating McCarthy. A third ballot was taken, and the number of anti-McCarthy voters rose to 20 as Florida’s Byron Donalds joined the group.
The House adjourned after that, with no Speaker and no possibility of conducting any other business.
How long the revolt lasts will depend on the nature of the 20 defectors’ motivations. Much of what goes on in the American Congress — especially from members on the far-Right and far-Left — is symbolic and performative. As the legislature has shed its responsibilities over the years in favour of the courts and the executive branch, much of the “business” of Congress has been giving speeches to an empty chamber, not writing laws or debating them.
This revolt may be more of the same. Or it may be a cynical power grab, as McCarthy has alleged, a ploy to win committee chairmanships for the more conservative members. But the sentiments raised by Chip Roy (one of the 19), about the degradation of the House and the diminution of the conservative principles of its Republican members, may strike a chord with some of those watching the contest.
Roy shamed the House for voting for massive spending bills no one read, paid for with money the country does not have, where military and spending goes up, “and the American people are the big losers.” That message will resonate with a conservative base that is tired of voting for people who promise fiscal responsibility and deliver the opposite. But will it matter? Will more than one member join their never-Kevin caucus?
“This place has to change,” Roy says. And surely many Americans agree. Opposition to the status quo is the easy part. But change to what? That will no doubt be the sticking point. A majority of House members agreed yesterday that they did not want Kevin McCarthy to be Speaker, but that was the only thing on which they agreed.
In the 1850s, one Congress took two months to settle on a Speaker in a time even more unsettled than our own. This departure from the orderly patterns of the 20th century is not likely to be so pronounced as all that, but it may suggest that the dissatisfaction with establishment politics is moving from performance to reality.