The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion To save himself, McCarthy just destroyed the House

Kevin McCarthy holds up the speaker’s gavel after he was elected speaker. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On the fourth of 14 failed attempts this week to elect Kevin McCarthy as speaker, Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) complained that Democrats and the media were enjoying the House Republicans’ meltdown too much.

“In some ways they’re salivating,” the lawmaker complained in his speech re-re-renominating McCarthy. “The schadenfreude is palpable.”

On Jan. 7, the House elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as the nation’s 55th speaker after days of defeats and concessions to win over hard-line Republicans (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

No doubt some took pleasure in the Republicans’ pain. But as a longtime reviewer of political theater, I found nothing enjoyable about this performance.

This is what happens when a political party, year after year, systematically destroys the norms and institutions of democracy. This is what happens when those expert at tearing things down are put in charge of governing. The dysfunction has been building over years of government shutdowns, debt-default showdowns and other fabricated crises, and now anti-government Republicans used their new majority to bring the House itself to a halt.

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Understanding the House speaker’s role
What does the speaker of the House do?
The speaker is the de facto leader of the majority party in the House and one of the most visible spokespeople for the party’s agenda and legislative priorities. The speaker oversees committee assignments and floor debates. They are also second in the presidential line of succession, after the vice president.
How is the speaker of the House chosen?
The speaker is elected by a roll call vote by the entire House of Representatives when the body convenes for the first time after an election. While it’s not a requirement that the speaker is from the majority party or has a seat in Congress, it typically works that way.
How long is the term for the speaker of the House?
Two years, the same as the length of the Congressional term. The role is up for reelection following a general or midterm election, unless the speaker resigns, dies, or is removed.

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This is insurrection by other means: Two years to the day since the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol, Republicans are still attacking the functioning of government. McCarthy opened the door to the chaos by excusing Donald Trump’s fomenting of the attack and welcoming a new class of election deniers to his caucus. Now he’s trying to save his own political ambitions by agreeing to institutionalize the chaos — not just for the next two years but for future congresses as well.

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On Thursday, the day McCarthy failed on an 11th consecutive ballot to secure the speakership, he formally surrendered to the 21 GOP extremists denying him the job. He agreed to allow any member of the House to force a vote at will to “vacate” his speakership — essentially agreeing to be in permanent jeopardy of losing his job. He agreed to put rebels on the Rules Committee, giving them sway over what gets a vote on the House floor, and in key committee leadership posts. He agreed to unlimited amendments to spending bills, inviting two years of mayhem. He agreed to other changes that make future government shutdowns and a default on the national debt more likely, if not probable.

Perhaps worst of all, the McCarthy-aligned super PAC, the Conservative Leadership Fund, agreed that it would no longer work against far-right extremists in the vast majority of Republican primaries — a move sure to increase the number of bomb throwers in Congress. Essentially, McCarthy placated the crazies in his caucus by giving up every tool he (or anybody) had to maintain order in the House.

Finally, on the 15th ballot early Saturday morning, McCarthy’s abject surrender secured him the speakership, at least temporarily. But it was the most pyrrhic of victories. To save himself, he sacrificed the Congress itself. The saboteurs won.

•••

Yes, the Republicans’ televised, self-inflicted debacle is gripping, in the train-wreck sense. As spectacles go, you’d have to look back more than 160 years to find a comparable failure to elect a speaker. This week, Republicans referred to one another as the “Taliban” and “terrorists” and “hostage takers.” They traded obscenities in a caucus meeting. One of the anti-McCarthy Republicans, Matt Gaetz of Florida, publicly called McCarthy a “squatter” for prematurely occupying the speaker’s Capitol office.

In an appalling scene on the House floor Friday night, Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, lunged at holdout Gaetz and had to be pulled away. Nearby was Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who conveyed her respect for the institution by voting with her dog in her arms.

On the House floor Thursday, Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), a White man from the South, accused Cori Bush (Mo.), a Black Democrat, of “grotesquely racist rhetoric.” The day before, Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) insinuated groundlessly in her speech re-re-re-re-renominating McCarthy that Democrats were drunk on the job.

Democrats howled for her words to be struck from the record, but because there was no speaker, there was nothing to be done. “There are no rules,” McCarthy said from his seat on the floor.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) took the oath of office after being elected Speaker of the House on Jan. 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

No rules. No functioning. And, essentially, no House. The elected members of Congress cannot be sworn in (although the office of New York Republican George Santos, who fabricated much of his life story, erroneously issued a news release stating that he had been sworn in). Bills can’t be introduced. Committee memberships and chairmanships can’t be assigned, and staff can’t be hired. Newly elected lawmakers can’t access emails or office supplies. House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik even called off her colleagues’ feeding. “Due to the House adjourning, there will not be pizza and salads tonight,” announced an email from her office Tuesday evening.

But sabotaging government is no joke. The incoming Republican chairmen of the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees warned that the standoff could “place the safety and security of the United States at risk.” Even House Chaplain Margaret Kibben sounded the alarm. “Protect us that in this imbroglio of indecision we do not expose ourselves to the incursion of our adversary,” she prayed at the start of Thursday’s session. “Watch over the seeming discontinuity of our governance and the perceived vulnerability of our national security.”

There was only one upside to the anarchy: The government no longer controlled the TV cameras in the House chamber. Americans at home could watch leaders huddling with rebels, far-right Gaetz conferring with far-left Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and the serial fabricator Santos sitting alone, discreetly picking his nose.

Outside the House chamber, corridors smelling of cigar smoke and body odor became scenes of mayhem: As I and other reporters chased McCarthy on Wednesday night from the floor to his office, we knocked aside Michael McCaul, incoming chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, during a live interview with Fox News. Inside the chamber, lawmakers shouted at the House clerk — the only authority that exists in the leaderless House — as she struggled to maintain order.

The new majority couldn’t even manage the most routine business without chaos. A GOP attempt to adjourn Wednesday night nearly failed, as lawmakers sprinted into the chamber to vote after time had expired. Thursday morning, Republicans celebrated their two-vote margin on the adjournment.

“Yesterday, we experienced very briefly our first win,” John James (R-Mich.) said in his speech re-re-re-re-re-renominating McCarthy. “It was a small victory, but didn’t it feel good? We’ve been working hard for that victory.”

Not many would call it a “win” to adjourn the House after failing for the sixth time to elect a speaker — but even that minor victory was short-lived. On Thursday, Republicans held vote after vote in their fruitless attempt to elect McCarthy. The reason? It took them eight hours to corral enough votes to adjourn.

•••

McCarthy’s allies on and off the floor freely admitted that the leadership pratfall was “messy.” But this goes well beyond messy and into the realm of stupidity.

One of the 21 anti-McCarthy holdouts, Ralph Norman of South Carolina (the one who urged Trump to declare “marshall [sic] law” before the Jan. 6 insurrection), told me and others Wednesday that he would support McCarthy only if he agreed to “shut the government down” rather than “raise the debt ceiling.” In reality, one has nothing to do with the other.

But such people now run the show. McCarthy clearly can’t control them. Even Trump can’t control them. Rebel Lauren Boebert (Colo.), just a few seats away from McCarthy on the floor, told the House that Trump, rather than lobbying for McCarthy, “needs to tell Kevin McCarthy that, sir, you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw.”

Ruth Marcus: Kevin McCarthy and the price of power for its own sake

McCarthy forced a grin.

His leadership has been lacking, if not utterly absent, throughout the crisis.

First, he stiff-armed opponents, delaying for weeks before responding to their demands.

Then he and his allies tried to fight the rebels, shaming them publicly and threatening to take away their committee assignments.

Next, Team McCarthy tried to beat them through attrition, forcing the 11 votes over three days that McCarthy lost by nearly identical tallies.

And finally he capitulated. “Cavin’ Kevin,” as Gaetz called him, surrendered.

The one thing McCarthy didn’t try? Negotiating with Democrats. They could easily have given him the votes he needs to become speaker, in exchange for concessions. But bipartisanship is a nonstarter in McCarthy’s caucus.

•••

An hour before the new Congress convened to elect a speaker on Tuesday, an email went out from the Capitol Police: The Capitol’s “Duress Alarm System” had gone offline. Too bad, because McCarthy’s duress was just beginning.

In a caucus meeting, McCarthy told Republicans that he had earned the job, “God dammit.”

Replied Boebert: “This is bulls---!”

She walked out and told reporters: “Now here we are being sworn at instead of being sworn in.”

Gaetz, at her side, called McCarthy “the biggest alligator” in the Washington swamp.

McCarthy, in turn, vowed to bore the rebels into submission. “Look,” he told reporters before heading to the floor, “I have the record for the longest speech ever on the floor. I don’t have a problem getting a record for the most votes for speaker, too.”

But it quickly became clear that the anti-McCarthy Republicans were more numerous than expected. The first roll call produced 19 Republican votes against McCarthy. Each one set off a wave of murmurs in the chamber: Biggs. Bishop. Boebert. Brecheen. Cloud. Within the first few minutes of the alphabetical roll call, McCarthy’s defeat was already assured — the first time in a century a speaker hadn’t been chosen on the first ballot.

McCarthy greeted each defection with a wan smile. He jiggled his leg. He tapped his reading glasses. He scrolled on his phone. He whispered to an aide. And when the clerk’s tally made his loss official, he acted as if he had won, shaking hands, smiling, waving.

Matt Bai: McCarthy is the last of three little pigs. He’d best start packing.

It was much the same for subsequent votes, as he endured insult after insult:

“The last time an election for speaker went to a second ballot, Leader [Hakeem] Jeffries’s beloved New York Yankees had not yet won a World Series,” Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) pointed out.

Gaetz referred to McCarthy as “someone who has sold shares of themselves for more than a decade” to get the job.

On the third vote, Byron Donalds (Fla.) joined the rebels. “It’s clear right now that Kevin doesn’t have the votes,” he told a group of reporters after his switch.

On the fourth vote, Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) switched her vote from McCarthy to “present.”

Nominating McCarthy for the fifth ballot, Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) asked: “Does it really boil down to this, that 20 or more of my colleagues will never trust Kevin McCarthy as speaker?”

One of the rebels, Scott Perry (Pa.), claimed that his opposition to McCarthy “is not about personalities.” This prompted laughter from the Democratic side.

On the fifth vote, a foreign journalist in the press gallery fell asleep, face down on the table.

On the sixth ballot, Cammack began her McCarthy nomination speech by telling the House: “Well, it’s Groundhog Day, again.”

And after each tally, the clerk repeated the same refrain: “A speaker has not been elected.”

Ignoring the reality on the floor, McCarthy kept smiling, back-patting, waving to his family in the gallery, pumping his fist. During one roll call, he was so distracted that he didn’t respond at first when the clerk called his name — and for good reason: He had already begun the process of surrendering.

The concessions began to flow Wednesday night, and they flooded out during talks Thursday. As the GOP rebels held the line on the floor, rejecting McCarthy five more times, McCarthy’s representatives were one floor below, in the office of Republican Whip-elect Tom Emmer, giving away the store.

The holdouts had been given essentially everything they had asked for — and still, the extremists demanded more. “A deal is NOT done,” Perry, head of the House Freedom Caucus, tweeted Thursday afternoon.

“Somebody should check and make sure Kevin McCarthy still has two kidneys,” Adam Smith (Wash.), top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, quipped Friday.

By Friday evening, the rebels could hardly believe the breadth of McCarthy’s capitulation. “We’re running out of things to ask for,” Gaetz marveled.

Yet still they tortured McCarthy. One vote shy at the end of Friday night’s 14th ballot, McCarthy publicly humiliated himself by walking over to Gaetz and pressuring him to switch his vote. In view of the whole House and the TV cameras, Gaetz rebuffed him. McCarthy retreated. “We’ll do it again,” he said angrily.

Finally, after four full days of chaos capped by intra-GOP fisticuffs and Republicans voting down their own motion to adjourn, McCarthy claimed the gavel. But by then his fate had become unimportant, because whoever occupies the speaker’s chair will now be irrelevant. McCarthy’s surrender has condemned the House to two years — or more — of anarchy.

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