The press wants to portray the ongoing speakership election as chaos. What political observers are actually experiencing is a rare vote in Congress where the outcome is not already known in advance. More votes should be this way.
Adding to the purported chaos is the fact that the members of the House are actually in the Capitol, together, at the same time. This, too, is a welcome reprieve from legislative life under the proxy-voting rules Democrats used when they controlled the chamber, supposedly over Covid concerns. It’s also welcome because the House has not been accustomed to assembling all at once for years, pandemic or not.
The rows of chairs in a semicircle before the rostrum under “In God We Trust” that most people envision when they think of Congress are only usually occupied simultaneously during the State of the Union address. The legislative branch has atrophied so much that one of the only times members all get together is when the leader of the executive branch pays them a visit.
What we’re seeing in the House isn’t chaos. It’s what Congress is supposed to be.
The word “congress” comes from the Latin word “congredi,” meaning “to come together.” The point of Congress is for legislators who are independently elected by constituents from separate, geographically defined districts to come together in the Capitol and argue. In the House, those arguments are supposed to be raucous.
The problem is that the people demanding these changes are by and large unserious. Chip Roy (R., Texas) is being serious, but Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.), who has now started voting for Donald Trump as speaker, is not, and Lauren Boebert (R., Colo.) is so ridiculous even Marjorie Taylor Greene (R., Ga.) has had enough. And no one has yet offered a viable alternative to McCarthy who could win over the GOP conference. McCarthy has made numerous concessions that holdouts say they want, and yet they still won’t vote for him.
But nowhere in the Constitution is any level of seriousness required for House members. You only have to be 25 or older, have been a U.S. citizen for seven years, and live in the state you represent. Federalist No. 52 says of the House that “the door of this part of the federal government is open to merit of every description.”
That includes whatever description applies to Gaetz and Boebert. They are exercising their legitimate privileges as duly elected members of Congress. You get to be a troll in the United States House of Representatives. Some Americans are trolls, and they get representation, too. Congressmen have been at this for a very long time. As Dan McLaughlin concluded after surveying a history of raucous speakership battles, “The House may often be a mess, but it’s a very American mess.”
From a political party’s point of view, it may be wise to clamp down on disruptive members. Party leadership has any number of ways of doing so with committee assignments and legislative priorities when in office. At the election stage, there are two major ways to keep the trolls at bay. The first is defeating them in primary elections, by recruiting and funding sounder candidates. The second is by winning a large enough majority that the trolls don’t matter.
McCarthy failed to do either of those things. The GOP has been notoriously tolerant of shenanigans from members in safe GOP districts. And McCarthy’s leadership in the last election cycle failed to deliver the majority the GOP should have gotten, given that the incumbent Democratic president is unpopular and responsible for a variety of policy failures, and his party was facing the voters for the first time after his election.
Now McCarthy has to deal with the trolls, and he’s not up to the task. His case to the GOP conference was, “I earned this job,” and he has so far insisted on remaining a candidate. Not enough GOP House members agree with his claim, and they seem content to keep making their feelings known, as many times as the clerk calls the roll.
Part of the reason the GOP doesn’t have a majority as large as it should was Donald Trump’s endorsements in winnable House races that ended up handing seats to Democrats because Trump’s preferred Republican nominees were unpalatable to the general electorate. Instead of foreseeing that possibility, McCarthy attached himself to Trump at the hip and, even after seeing the ill effects of Trump’s actions, remains so affixed. He continued touting his endorsement from Trump and urging GOP House members to vote for him. They’re ignoring him.
Which is good. It should not matter in the slightest who Donald Trump thinks the speaker should be. He’s a proven election loser, but more fundamentally, he’s not a House member. The speakership contest is a constitutionally mandated decision that lies solely in House members’ hands.
The House is not in chaos right now. The House is acting like a legislature. We’re so used to seeing it act like a servant to the executive or like a stage for cable-news hits that we’ve forgotten what a legislature looks like. As Yuval Levin wrote, it would be preferable if this legislative behavior was in pursuit of something more worthwhile. But Congress has to start somewhere to regain its legislative capabilities, and this contest, despite all its nonsense, is a start.
Midway through the third day of the ongoing battle to pick a new speaker of the House, Rep. Matt Rosendale (R–Mont.) made an innocuous but telling point about the state of Congress.
“We have had more discussion and debate over the last three days than I have participated in, on this floor, for the past two years,” Rosendale, one of the group of breakaway Republicans who have refused to back Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R–Calif.) bid to become speaker, pointed out.
The stakes of this week’s congressional drama, he argued, are not merely about which House member will hold the ceremonial gavel but about a deeper problem with how Congress functions.
“The process that we use has been dramatically broken,” Rosendale explained, lamenting “the consolidation of power into the hands of the speaker and the fortunate few who happen to serve on the Rules Committee, which control every aspect of legislation that travels through this body.”
This is not a new complaint, but it remains an underappreciated one. For the past few decades, Congress has shifted away from its traditional process for passing legislation—the one that’s more or less reflected in the famous Schoolhouse Rock! song: A bill gets proposed, marked up in committee, amended, and finally put to a debate and voted on by the full chamber. Instead, as Rosendale explained Thursday, major bills are drafted by a handful of high-ranking leaders on both sides, then presented to the full House (usually with scant time to read or process what’s in them) for a simple up-or-down vote with few or no amendments allowed.
The result, as American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar Kevin Kosar explained to Roll Call in November, is that leaders can more easily push legislation through the House with party-line votes. The downside, however, is that “legislators feel like they’re not legislators,” Kosar said.
One way to understand this week’s Republican revolt against McCarthy, then, is that it’s not really about McCarthy at all. It’s actually a rank-and-file revolt against the top-down process that both parties have used to control the House in recent years. But the margins are thin enough right now that a few handfuls of lawmakers who are fed up with the process can use the speaker election as a pressure point to force a change.
Much of the media has lazily framed the speakership fight as a battle for personal power, but the renegade Republicans have made it clear what they are seeking. All the way back in July, the House Freedom Caucus published a list of demands for the next session. Right at the top of the document is a lengthy explanation of why the group believes power must be decentralized away from the speaker’s hands. None of this should be coming as a surprise right now.
But the idea that rank-and-file legislators should get to exert some influence—to, as Rosendale put it, actually have debates on the floor of the House about the best course of action—is now something of a foreign concept in Washington, which might help explain why so many people seem to be surprised by this eruption of democracy. President Joe Biden has described this week’s speaker election as “embarrassing,” but the real embarrassment is what happened last month: when Congress passed a 4,000-page, $1.7 trillion spending bill that most lawmakers had little time to read and no real opportunity to influence.
“We have an oligarchy right now,” former Rep. Justin Amash, who has complained for years about the top-down process used to push legislation through Congress, told Reason‘s Robby Soave on Thursday. “It’s the leaders of the parties in Congress, and it’s the president of the United States. Those people are deciding everything.”
Change doesn’t occur without a good reason. It’s not yet clear that holding up the anointing of a new speaker of the House will result in any serious changes to the way Congress operates, but it seems like a game worth playing.
And it’s a game the House Freedom Caucus might be winning. Politico reported yesterday that a brewing deal between McCarthy and the holdout Republicans would include “major changes to the appropriations process” including “standalone votes on each of the 12 yearly appropriations bills” and “allowing floor amendments to be offered by any lawmaker.”
To be sure, some of the other demands the group of holdouts is making—including a vote on beefed-up immigration rules and the inclusion of House Freedom Caucus members on the all-powerful Rules Committee—may not be on-net victories for democracy or limited government. There’s not much of a reason to root for this faction to take full control of Congress, but there’s also little reason to fear that they will.
But you don’t have to support the full House Freedom Caucus agenda or admire the often-noxious personalities within the group to recognize that they are absolutely right to demand changes in how Congress works.
“The debate and discussion has been all but eliminated, and the balance of us are left with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,'” Rosendale said Thursday. “Those are our options, and that is what has led to the disintegration of the relationships that we see across this floor.”
In other words, the fight over the speakership election isn’t evidence that Congress is broken. In fact, it might offer a glimmer of hope that the House can still be fixed.
It’s a very, very different kind of chaos than we saw two years ago, of course. I’m not trying to equate anything going on in Congress this week to Trump’s election fantasies or what happened on January 6, 2021. What’s going on right now is, in some ways, the exact opposite—a sign of a democracy functioning.
All I’m saying is that any hopes that the party had gotten its act together in the two years since the Capitol riots or the two months since the 2022 election have been exposed this week to be just as fanciful as Trump’s election fraud claims—and that it showcases the void Trump’s diminished status has created in the GOP.
For years, Trump alone basically set the Republican agenda, his whims and grievances substituting for anything like a policy platform, coherent vision, or legislative goals. Now, with the former president’s power and support in the Republican Party waning, the party is left with a confusing and chaotic mess of priorities, alliances, and figureheads. Without Trump to dictate the party’s direction, it’s a free-for-all over who will or should.
Those vehemently opposing Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R–Calif.) election as House speaker—the “hard right” Republicans, as they’re often called, though that’s something of a misnomer since the divisions between them and their GOP opponents isn’t exactly one of more or less conservatism—tend to represent a no-compromises, burn-it-all-down attitude toward GOP orthodoxies and more “respectable” politics. They delight in doing the thing most of their colleagues wouldn’t. They’re loud. Trollish. Trump-y, in many ways. Not about to go along or pipe down. And very adept at seizing any news cycle and making life very difficult for folks cast as their enemies. Some also harbor genuinely good ideas for procedural reform, including “reducing the speaker’s power by making his position less secure, increasing the ability of individual legislators to cut spending through amendments, and requiring a supermajority to approve earmarks on a case-by-case basis,” as Reason‘s Jacob Sullum notes.
They run up against more establishment Republicans still torn between trying to appeal to Trump and Trump fans and trying to start steering the party in another direction—a position that often renders them seemingly spineless and certainly with few good options.
These factions have come to a head this week, unable to agree on a House speaker through a whopping 11 rounds of voting over the past three days.
Having no dog in this fight, it’s all rather amusing. Besides, a Congress that spends all its time voting on who to lead it is a Congress that can do minimal damage. Perhaps endless voting for House speaker is the best thing it could do. And the fact that the revolt against McCarthy is part attention-seeking stunt doesn’t preclude it eventually producing substantive procedural reforms.
But it’s clear the divides and dysfunctions on display in the House speaker vote represent something much bigger than disagreement about McCarthy or congressional procedures. And they leave little room for belief that the Republican majority in the House will be able to accomplish much, even as they highlight some substantive policy goals.
It’s all got to be a little disheartening for folks who had high hopes for Republican action over the next two years. But from a libertarian perspective, the inertia may be a good thing, considering much of what’s on the GOP agenda anyway.
Honestly, there may even be cause for optimism about the Republican Party in the current congressional chaos, too. Once upon a time, the two ruling parties weren’t monoliths. There was room for disagreement among Republicans and divides among Democrats. These disagreements and divisions helped temper the worst impulses of either the right or the left.
Both parties have been slouching toward dangerous internal consistency over the past few decades, and Trump’s ascendancy and dominance took this to scary new places among Republicans—as we saw with January 6 and its aftermath.
Perhaps a more divided GOP like the one we’re seeing now is actually a really good sign.