“I love s**t shows,” one House Republican told a Politico reporter amid the chaos consuming the typically routine vote for speaker at the start of a new Congress, “and this is a s**t show to behold.” Maybe this revealing quote was designed to be tongue-in-cheek, but it reflects a truism about the House Republican conference. A governing party would try to avoid acting in ways that invite such graphic metaphors. Its members might even feel a measure of shame in bearing witness to a “s**t show” of their colleagues’ making. But this is not a governing party.
The House GOP leader, Kevin McCarthy, lost three consecutive votes for the speakership on Tuesday amid the objections of a handful of members of his conference. To survey the arguments made by his opponents, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the GOP’s mutineers have as much of an ax to grind with McCarthy as with the concept of congressional leadership itself.
In negotiations over the speakership vote ahead of Tuesday, McCarthy conceded to a number of demands that are designed to render one of the most powerful offices in the land a mere ceremonial figurehead.
The GOP leader acquiesced to lowering the threshold for a vote to oust the speaker from his job down to just five members from half the party’s conference in the House. That wasn’t good enough. The insurgents want any single member to be able to force a leadership crisis. McCarthy’s critics wanted a judiciary subcommittee to investigate the “weaponization” of the federal government—a cause inspired by the supposed persecution of Donald Trump at the hands of the Justice Department. They also secured new legislative guidelines that limit bills to a single topic, a relaxation of the rules around amendments, the restoration of budgetary points of order, and much more. They got it all. What they didn’t get was a commitment from McCarthy to refrain from interfering in Republican primaries to prevent the debacles that plagued the party in 2022. In defense of those debacles, the GOP’s dissidents have engineered their own.
More revealing of this cabal’s motives are their alternative candidates. Initially, the 19 (eventually 20) rebels split their votes across several protest candidates, but they rallied in later votes around Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan as their choice for speaker. In a floor speech, Rep. Chip Roy explained that his support for Jordan was validated by Jordan’s steadfast refusal to serve as speaker. The notion that Jordan lacks political ambition is ponderous enough, but being reluctant to serve didn’t spare Paul Ryan the rebuke of nine of his fellow Republicans (some of whom are presently opposing McCarthy’s bid). An honest appraisal of Jordan’s appeal would concede that the Ohio congressman shares the insurgents’ affinity for legislative disruption.
Pressed further, Roy’s objections began to sprawl. McCarthy failed to support Sen. Ted Cruz’s ill-conceived and ill-fated 2013 government shutdown to prevent the implementation of Obamacare. He was complicit in the failure of a 2018 border-security bill, a compromise package crafted by conservatives and moderates and backed by Trump that nevertheless won just 121 votes in a GOP-controlled House. Even the legislative-rules concessions Roy’s group received aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, according to him, because the “Rules Committee [is] chock full of a bunch of establishment people.”
Boiled down to their essence, Roy’s objections—which are the most coherent among his fellow renegades—are about the institution in which he serves. Speakers, effective or otherwise, rise through the ranks of leadership by earning the trust and support of their conference over years of service. Compromise bills tend to address multiple issues simultaneously because, absent overwhelming bipartisan consensus, single-issue bills often fail (which is why Roy is right to suspect the rule won’t be enforced). Finally, Roy laments that the majority of his conference doesn’t appear to share his predilections or priorities. The world as it is might be a suboptimal one, but it’s the one that congressional leadership must navigate. There’s a reason that so few are willing to subject themselves to this thankless work.
McCarthy owes a good deal of his misfortune to his own actions, but not because he hasn’t entertained his conference’s flights of fancy.
It was McCarthy who promised to avenge the grave injustice the DOJ did to Donald Trump by investigating him for a violation of statute to which the former president has all but confessed. It was McCarthy who lobbied his members against a bipartisan framework hashed out by a four-term Republican lawmaker for an investigation into the events of January 6—appeals that fully 35 members of his conference simply ignored. It was McCarthy who insisted that Democrats were persecuting Reps. Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene by stripping them of committee assignments for violations of decorum. That gesture didn’t do much for Gosar, who still opposes McCarthy’s speakership, but it has apparently earned him Greene’s undying admiration. Talk about a consolation prize.
These overtures only revealed the extent to which McCarthy was vulnerable to extortion. Moreover, the totality of the demands made by his detractors contributes to a general impression that what they want isn’t a functioning legislature but a dysfunctional one—a body in which every member of the majority is a king.
With the talismanic way in which the GOP’s mutineers talk about ousting McCarthy, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that claiming his scalp is both a means to an end and the end itself. That will prove wholly unsatisfying, particularly since a compromise candidate will likely emerge from the ranks of the GOP’s existing congressional leadership. And all this chaos contributes cumulatively to the impression that Republicans are incapable of governing—if the average voter defines governance as not demanding all of the public’s attention every second of every day.
Institutions like the House should have the effect of damping down the ambitions of agitators who promise that the only obstacle before us and the sunlit uplands are the fools who remain beholden to the conventions that make the institution work. The most salient indictment of McCarthy is that he courted those ambitious agitators and failed his institution in the process. It’s cold comfort that whoever comes up behind him will owe his or her station not to the institution but to the chaos breaking it apart.