In a country with firmly established political customs and procedures – sculpted over more than two centuries and celebrated as indicators of its political stability – the United States is yet again sailing into uncharted waters.
Hours before the new Congress convenes Tuesday, there is no apparent speaker of the House of Representatives, and in his efforts to win the position, Kevin McCarthy may be weakening the job he seeks and altering the way the chamber operates.
This uncertainty – in a capital where political figures may march to a different drummer but where the rhythm of the drumbeats is always the same – comes after many years of upheaval prompted by the ascendancy of Donald Trump.
Indeed, the rebellion against the natural progression of the House minority leader to the speaker’s rostrum was empowered in large measure by the Trump revolution, which in turn had gathered strength from an insurgency among a new breed of Republicans, muscular in their tactics, deeply conservative in their outlook, and insurrectionary in their contempt for the phrase that for decades was the oxygen of Capitol Hill: the “regular order.”
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The McCarthy conundrum, and the departure from the regular order of congressional life, can also be traced at least in some measure to Mr. Trump, whose outsized role in the midterm congressional elections, and the voter rebellion it prompted, delivered the Republicans a House GOP delegation far smaller than parties without the White House historically reap. That gave Mr. McCarthy an exceedingly slim margin of error in his quest for House leadership.
Now, in his effort – in his desperation – to become speaker, Mr. McCarthy, a California lawmaker with no particular ideological mooring, has offered the Republican rebels a cudgel they can use against him and, in an instant, remove the gavel from his hand.
He closed 2022 with an offer to permit as few as five members of the House to initiate a procedure, known as vacating the chair, that would force a fresh vote on whether the speaker should remain in office. He opened 2023 with an indication that he could make even more dramatic concessions to the rebels, who number between five and a dozen.
This change could allow as little as 1 per cent of the House to upend a speaker, throwing the body into upheaval at a moment’s notice. Under current rules, half the Republican majority, or 111 House members, is required to make the speaker stand down.
It is a rarely used element of Capitol Hill life and has never been successful. In permitting as few as five members to begin the procedure, Mr. McCarthy’s concession would mean that his speakership would be endangered from the very first moment.
In a sense, the McCarthy offer would democratize the House, which may be a symbol of U.S. democracy but which is ruled like an autocracy, often by a gerontocracy. But in democratizing the House, the McCarthy office would also destabilize it, and in the process alter its governing ethos, where – according to folklore and sometimes according to reality – the sage “old oaks,” as former speaker Thomas (Tip) O’Neill called them, ruled the chamber with wisdom and discernment.
Mr. O’Neill, an old-fashioned political figure from Cambridge, Mass., ruled that way, and so did many of his predecessors. The avatar of this form of congressional leadership was Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine, who was speaker between 1895 and 1899. He was known, tellingly, as Czar Reed.
The McCarthy concession would upend that form of leadership by sapping it of its strength.
Ordinarily those who cross the speaker are marginalized; under this new provision, the rebels would be at the centre of Capitol life. Customarily those who run afoul of the speaker lose power; under this proposal, they would be empowered. In the lore of the House and in reality, those who deviate from the leadership’s wishes are told, in the argot of the Capitol, to fold; instead, it is the speaker who would be instructed to fold.
Even with this concession, Mr. McCarthy still is a few votes short of reaching his goal. Other Republican figures are calculating their chances of supplanting him.
Democrats are luxuriating in the chaos, portraying it as a symbol of their rivals’ inability to govern and hoping that the upheaval will undermine the Republicans’ credibility as leaders in next year’s presidential election. The Democrats’ only modern-time challenge to the ascendancy of a speaker ended quietly when Nancy Pelosi squashed a brief and weak rebellion in late 2018, three weeks before the convening of the new Congress.
Mr. McCarthy, an accomplished parliamentarian with a strong survival instinct, still has a few cards to play.
Perhaps his strongest is in the fine print of the House rules, where a speaker needs not a majority of the chamber (218) but a majority of those who cast ballots for speaker. If he persuades a few of his allies to vote “present” or not to appear in the chamber at all, a figure substantially lower than 218 would deliver the speakership to him.
That would redeem an ancient element of Washington leadership, that craftiness is part of the politician’s craft. Then, of course, the new speaker would need a new form of craftiness to retain the position his own concessions have weakened.