Just before noon Wednesday, a Democrat from Washington state climbed the stairs to the House side of the Capitol building — a building that definitely exists.
Existential uncertainty wafted through the hallways of the House on Wednesday. Members-elect and their staffers kept asking one another, “Do you know anything?” This was the first time in 100 years that the election of a speaker of the House went beyond a first ballot.
Greg Pence, the brother of the former vice president, walked into the House chamber before the start of a second day of voting for speaker, passing a sign that says “Members Only.” Though reelected in November and wearing an official congressional pin, Pence was not technically a member of Congress, because he had not been sworn in again.
“I’m a member-elect,” Pence (R-Ind.) explained.
But if there are no actual members, who is in charge on this side of the Capitol?
Pence pointed to the ceiling and said, “God.” (God could not be reached for comment.)
We are in purgatory. A historic game of chicken was unfolding on the House floor Wednesday. It was a blend of bottleneck and train wreck. After at least six rounds of painstaking voice votes that resulted in stalemates, the 434 members-elect could not decide on a speaker of the House — which means they cannot be sworn in, which means they cannot establish rules, form committees, authorize or appropriate federal spending, oversee the dysfunction of government, or otherwise serve the Americans who sent them to Washington to get something, anything, accomplished.
Just before the session commenced, Rep.-elect Troy E. Nehls (R-Tex.), a Freedom Caucus guy who is nevertheless voting for Rep.-elect Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), was smoking a nubby Ashton cigar outdoors. He had two more in his jacket pocket, either to celebrate or to pass the time.
“They’re mild-to-moderate,” Nehls said about the cigars, “which is good, because they won’t make you s--- your pants.” That is an important feature, here in purgatory, where members-elect have been changing the diapers of their visiting infants in the cloak rooms.
“This baby was born on the first round of votes,” tweeted Rep.-elect Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) on Tuesday, while holding the child of colleague Jimmy Gomez. “He’s now 4 months old.”
Point of order: The 118th Congress has indeed begun, according to constitutional procedure, and the House is in the process of organizing itself. But the House technically has no members and cannot proceed with the business of the American people. The delay in the House is not without some precedent. The House of the Representatives of the very first Congress, begun in 1789, did not achieve a quorum until nearly a month after the government opened, because of bad travel conditions, among other factors.
“This is a very mortifying situation,” Fisher Ames of Massachusetts said then, at Federal Hall in New York City, while waiting for his slowpoke colleagues. “We lose credit, spirit, every thing. The public will forget the government before it is born.”
Cut to 234 years later: This is “the abyss,” said Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), waving his arms in the air. The House had a quorum, but it still had no speaker, and the speaker is the figure who swears in members-elect, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Democrats had lost the House in November’s midterm elections, but they were having a lot more fun on their side of the aisle, watching as McCarthy suffered defeat after humiliating defeat.
“Much of what happens in Congress is funny,” Bowman continued. “But when you realize the implications of the B.S. we put the American people through, it’s scary.”
This purgatory has left a hole in the presidential line of succession: The speaker is second in line, after the vice president. The House, unable to organize itself, can’t participate in the sharing of national security intelligence with the White House.
“I think more people need to be aware of the institutional damage that’s going on here,” said a House procedural expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid personally influencing the proceedings. “If one of those branches is so hamstringed, so paralyzed, as it is right now, do you really have the three equal branches of government that our Constitution has set out?”
Confusion reigned. Missouri Republican Billy Long, who just retired from Congress, spent Wednesday wondering whether he was actually still a member.
“Who’s in charge?” Long said by telephone. When he was first elected about 12 years ago, “we were told in no uncertain terms: ‘Don’t even think about trying to act as a congressman until you’re sworn in.’ Kevin McCarthy is not a congressman. Steve Scalise is not a congressman. Who’s getting paid? Are these people getting paid zero dollars a day? Am I still getting paid $400 a day?”
Long had heard that he was still governed by House ethics guidelines until the new Congress was sworn in. Did that mean he couldn’t sell stocks privately, or let someone buy him dinner?
“Let’s say a friend of 30 years has a condo in Aspen, Colorado, and they’ve told me for 12 years, ‘Anytime you want to use our condo, go ahead,’” said Long, speaking from what he called a “secure, undisclosed location” that was neither Missouri nor D.C. “Let’s say I checked into their condo for free. I thought I could do it, and now I’m told, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t take any free stuff.’ There are rumors about congressmen who had big jobs lined up the day they were out of Congress, which should’ve been 12 o’clock yesterday. Did they sign deals for seven figures yesterday to become lobbyists, or did they not?”
“All I know is I checked with the Congressional Research Service to see if we will still be getting paid,” said Abbas Alawieh, chief of staff to Rep.-elect Cori Bush (D-Mo.), sitting on a bench outside the chamber in the first hour of Wednesday’s session. “They haven’t gotten back to me yet.”
Nearby, Rep.-elect Ken Buck (R-Colo.) explained that he believed the House existed, but in a state of “disarray.” The proof: People had been elected, and had pins, and could go on the floor to vote for the speaker. So what needs to happen to get a speaker?
Buck suggested that Republicans adjourn and go downstairs to meet in private. “I don’t know if alcohol will help,” Buck said, “or if we need to bring in a plate of Colorado brownies.”
By 3:30 p.m., the members-elect had finished a fifth round of inconclusive balloting, and the House ethics people had gotten back to Long, in his undisclosed location. He had indeed become a private citizen at noon Tuesday, with the gaveling in of the 118th Congress, whose House was still a headless body.
Back on the floor, Rep.-elect Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) was nominating McCarthy for a sixth ballot.
Democrats “want us to fight each other,” Cammack said to the chamber. “That much has been made clear by the popcorn and blankets and alcohol” on the Democratic side.
Democrats began to boo and hiss.
“The House is not in order,” Cammack said with a smile. “The House is not in order.”
Democrats began to call for her words to be stricken from the congressional record. It seemed that they could not.
“We have no rules,” explained McCarthy, speaker only of purgatory.
Roxanne Roberts and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.
Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker of the House
The vote: The House elected Kevin McCarthy after days of defeats and concessions to win over hard-line Republicans. See how each of the House members voted in all 15 ballots.
A dramatic finish: After multiple ballots over four days (the longest House speaker vote in history took two months and 133 votes), the House turned into a near-brawl late Friday after a 14th round of voting failed. See the remarkable near-confrontation on the House floor.
Kevin McCarthy’s concessions: McCarthy made several concessions in an attempt to win over 20 Republicans who voted against his candidacy. In the end, these were the remaining six holdouts McCarthy needed to persuade. Here are the concessions that could become flash points.