MAJORITY LEADER Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) threw the House into chaos Thursday by announcing that he would not seek to become speaker, leaving the GOP caucus without a clear leader and deepening worries that Congress will be incapable of performing basic functions.
Would it be fairer to blame the so-called Freedom Caucus that opposed Mr. McCarthy, a few dozen hard-core Republicans who apparently didn’t come to Washington to govern but to tear the place down? How about the many House Republicans who are more civic-minded but who shrink from making the principled case for compromise and order? Or perhaps Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who couldn’t or wouldn’t tame his restive caucus over the past five years, leaving a mess for whoever succeeds him?
Everyone on this list may deserve blame, but at this point we hope members of Congress will shift from pointing fingers to thinking seriously about the good of the country and the dangers it faces. Even before the leadership crisis, the House had failed to face facts on the budget, the debt ceiling, immigration and many other issues. Now dysfunction could produce outcomes that would seriously harm the nation and the world, starting with default and shutdown. This isn’t a question of right wing vs. left but of nihilism vs. a willingness to govern. Legislators who care about the national interest must find the courage to forge governing coalitions, even with willing Democrats, if that’s what it takes to sideline a faction that abhors compromise.
That willingness must start with Mr. Boehner, stymied for now in his desire to retire. He has said he will stay on until his colleagues can settle on a replacement. He should use this time to seek a long-term budget and debt-ceiling deal with the Senate and President Obama and put it to a simple up-or-down vote.
Mr. Boehner can’t and shouldn’t have to do this alone. He needs good-faith negotiating partners on both sides of the aisle. Most House Republicans are conservative on policy, but most also understand the danger of shutting down the government or refusing to raise the debt limit in order to register anger and score ideological points. They recognize that a great democracy can’t function when one faction issues unrealistic demands and threatens to burn everything down if it doesn’t get its way. If these Republicans can find their voice, Democrats should reciprocate with a willingness to find solutions rather than seek political advantage in Republican dysfunction.
One possible reason Mr. McCarthy withdrew is that the Freedom Caucus demanded rule changes that would enhance the power of the fringes. The next speaker should refuse to hand the Freedom Caucus this or any other ransom, and the majority of Republicans should back him or her up. The House doesn’t need a “caretaker” speaker to paper over the toxic divide in the GOP caucus. It needs a leader who will neutralize the destructive influence of the Republican Party’s Jacobins.