After a record-breaking fifteen rounds of voting, characterized by brief bursts of internecine warfare interposed with much tedium and the occasional late night pizza, California Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy was finally elected to the office of Speaker of the House late on Friday. After a week of chaos and name-calling, the lower house of Congress can now carry on its business, including finally installing the newly elected representatives from the class of 2022, and maybe even get back to basic lawmaking.
What should have been a quick and ordinary process given the Republican majority devolved into near chaos over the course of the week, as approximately twenty conservative representatives, many aligned with the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), levied a staunch resistance and refused to deliver the votes necessary to install Rep. McCarthy as Speaker, at least until substantive concessions were made.
The Democratic Party members in Congress, along with their allies and sympathizers from both parties in the mainstream media, used the free pass given them to rail against the conservative Republicans and roundly mock the dysfunction and apparent dissolution that was unfolding before them. This was primarily political theatre. The Representatives’ real frustration, of course, was being forced to stay in session fourteen times in a row, often late into the night, only to end up at the same place and having to start all over again. Apparently, Groundhog Day arrived early this year.
While this melodrama was difficult to watch, the process forced some much needed concessions and changes to the way congressional business may get done going into 2023. And hopefully it will result in some humility on the part of Rep. McCarthy, who was opposed in part on a view that he represented little change from the Pelosian status quo, with all the attendant arrogance, We the People ignoring, and authoritarianism it entailed.
The most important of the demands of the HFC and its allies as articulated by Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) and others included: 1) reinstalling the Motion to Vacate the Chair, in which any one rep can force a vote on the removal of the speaker, 2) restoring the legislative process and its norms such that representatives can have at least 72 hours to review proposed legislation, as well as debate issues and make proposals for amendments on the open floor of the House, 3) keeping House leadership and their proxies from interfering in Republican primaries, 4) granting HFC and other conservatives proportionate representation on committees and among committee chairs, 5) “a firm plan to end limitless spending,” recently illustrated by the Omnibus spending package ramrodded through Congress to the frustration of many excluded from the process, 6) “Using Must-Pass legislation to Check the Biden Administration,” and 7) forming a “Church Commission Style Committee to Target Weaponized Government.”
Many of these demands were accommodated or acknowledged by Rep. McCarthy, with commitments to address them in the new term, and that is a good thing. This will not be enough. The U.S. Congress has sunk to such a level of dysfunction and yes, corruption, that a major overhaul is required. While these events won’t bring such a transformation, it may signal a step in the right direction.
I write in Why America Matters that our nation faces a crisis of institutions, meaning, among other things, that most Americans believe, on some fairly damning evidence, that our government institutions are failing us. Beyond the signs of bureaucratic incompetence is the loss of trust necessary for a democratic republic to survive. Specifically, these institutions no longer trust the American people and as a result we no longer trust them (see: the Twitter Files). While trust in our institutions is declining across the board, nowhere is Americans’ distrust of the competence, reliability, and trustworthiness of government greater than with regard to the U.S. Congress. Specifically, only around twenty-two percent of Americans approve “of the way Congress is handling its job,” a figure which has ranged as low as sixteen percent in recent months.
This week’s theatre did little to improve Americans’ impression or the reputation of the U.S. Congress. Having said that, the battle that was waged to restore some basic legislative norms lost in the Speaker Pelosi and previous eras, and the concessions ultimately granted, may have made the messiness worthwhile.
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