Photo Credit: Architect of the Capitol
Fresco by Allyn Cox
As of Friday, the House of Representatives rejected a choice for speaker for the fourth time in nearly three weeks. The rage in the House Republican Conference, which boiled over into screaming, name calling, and threats, according to most press accounts, is a symptom of a much larger problem that involves both parties, and frankly, many Americans as well.
Compromise, the heart and soul of politics, and frankly for any successful human relationship, has become deplorable in Congress. On both sides of the aisle, a significant minority ascribes any effort to compromise with the other party as worthy of punishment, including being “primaried,” censured, and subjected to threats of mob violence. Today, we are seeing this play out with Republicans, who’s micro margin in the House empowers the most extreme members with a veto over every decision, including the decision to proceed with any business at all.
The last time that there was a vote to burn down the House was August 24, 1814. Having captured the Capitol with a force of about 150 men, British Rear Admiral George Cockburn ascended the dais to the speaker’s chair and asked his soldiers, “Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned? All for it will say ‘Aye.’” The motion carried unanimously, and the Capitol was quite literally burned down.
Nearly 200 years later, in the wake of the collapse of housing markets and the foreclosures of millions of homes throughout the country, the Tea Party movement gave birth to the House Freedom Caucus. A group of populist ultra-conservatives who brought a “burn it down” approach to conventional politics.
Make no mistake about it, this is a constitutional crisis in the most literal sense. The speakership is an Article I constitutional office, third in line to the presidency, and is required to bring any legislation to the floor for a vote. Without a speaker, Congress cannot pass any legislation, regardless of size, scope, or urgency.
On Monday, Republicans in the House will meet again to attempt to identify a leader who can garner the 217 votes necessary to elect a Speaker. With a dozen candidates now vying for the job, success by the end of the week doesn’t appear promising. Under normal circumstances, one person would receive a majority of the votes within the Republican Conference, and then all but a very few of the others would accept that their candidate didn’t win and would support the will of the majority. But today, the will of the majority isn’t stronger than the will of the most extreme minority as only four or five of them can torpedo over 200 of their colleagues.
You don’t have to be a Democrat to respect former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) political prowess in managing a majority with two fewer votes than the current Republican majority. Unfortunately, there are few Pelosi’s in either party (other than Pelosi herself). Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) will certainly get the opportunity to measure up over the next four weeks when the current temporary government funding bill expires on November 17. Keeping your caucus unified against the opposition is not that test.
I certainly don’t see anyone in the House Republican Conference who can bridge this growing divide, with the possible, unlikely and reluctant exception of acting speaker pro-tem Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.). Which means the only way for the House to be back in order, may be for moderate Republicans and Democrats to work together to elect a temporary speaker pro-tem with the powers of a full speaker. Unfortunately, the math necessary for this to occur quickly escalates from second grade arithmetic to college calculus. This is because for every concession Republicans make to gain the support of Democrats, additional Republicans will object. Some Democrats will object that they haven’t been given enough, and they will refuse to vote for the compromise candidate. The more this goes on, the harder it gets.
According to the online membership-based news organization Punchbowl, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) discussed his requirements at a closed-door meeting of the House Democratic Caucus (Republicans have a Conference, Democrats have a Caucus – they serve the same function). Jeffries told his colleagues he will only support a speaker pro-tem who voted to certify the 2020 election.
“In addition, Democrats are seeking assurances that this Republican will work in a bipartisan way to fund the government at levels agreed to in the debt-limit compromise earlier this year,” Punchbowl reported on Thursday. “And they want a guarantee that the speaker pro-tem will bring a Ukraine-Israel aid bill to the floor. House Republicans say this resolution won’t be subject to formal negotiations with Democrats. Democrats are also pushing for a few other things, but these are much more of a reach to us. Democrats want to discuss some rules changes, including raising the threshold on the motion to vacate; changing the makeup of the Rules Committee to make it more bipartisan; and bringing more bipartisan suspension bills to the floor.” Each proposal will be important to someone and will require additional concessions to achieve.
This means that next week is likely to be as dysfunctional as last week, with the November 17 deadline to reach agreement on a FY 2024 spending bill before a government shutdown. And that is likely to be about a trillion and a half times harder.