On Wednesday, with the United States House of Representatives paralysed by its inability to elect a Speaker and get on with the day-to-day business of running the country, Republican congressman Mike Gallagher attempted to smooth it all over.
“Sure, it looks messy,” he said. “But democracy is messy. By design … and that’s a feature, that’s a feature, not a bug of our system.” Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert went further: “This isn’t chaos; this is a constitutional republic at work … This is actually a really beautiful thing.”
Messy it may have been – but democracy at work it was not. And if you care about good governance, it was not remotely beautiful.
Handed a majority in the House at the 2022 midterm elections, the Republicans’ first job when the legislative calendar resumed this week should have been a routine piece of housekeeping, a ceremonial gesture usually squared away behind closed doors long before it comes to a vote. Instead, the attempt by some Republicans to install as Speaker the man supposed to be their preferred candidate, Californian congressman Kevin McCarthy, descended into farce when 20 from the far right of the party blocked him, making demands in line with their extremist agenda, including some that weaken the power of the Speaker.
Time and again McCarthy stood, after offering an increasing number of concessions to the mutineers, until it became embarrassing (the House must keep voting until a candidate reaches a majority). McCarthy even failed to beat the Democrats’ Hakeem Jeffries, whose nomination was largely symbolic given his party’s seat deficit.
Post-Trump, it appears Republicans can’t agree on what their party stands for: whether it should continue to embrace the radical positions unleashed by the former president or accept it needs to pivot back to the middle. This week, the Republicans first in the majority in the House, they couldn’t even agree on who should lead them – the first time that has happened in 100 years.
This is no trivial matter. The Speaker is a vital presence in the House and technically second in line to the president. Without a Speaker, the House cannot pass laws, adopt resolutions, direct witnesses to appear before committees or swear in new members, who remain in limbo without security clearance for private briefings from intelligence and military agencies.
“If there’s a real emergency, we couldn’t respond,” Democrat congressman Jerry Nadler told The New York Times, describing the House as “totally nonfunctional”.
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