The Speaker of the American House of Representative – the leader of that body – has been deposed by his own members. Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, was pushed out in an unprecedented vote. He is the first speaker to be removed by a congressional vote. The House is now adjourned. It cannot do any business until it elects a new speaker. That will likely occur in the next two weeks.
It is unclear if a strong speaker can emerge from the fractured Republican House conference. To ascend to the speakership, McCarthy had to agree to a series of limits which made him vulnerable to precisely the internal coup which brought him down. His successor will presumably face the same pressures.
Radicalism is Making House Republicans Ungovernable
McCarthy is now the third Republican House Speaker in a row to depart because his own conference proved ungovernable. McCarthy’s predecessor’s John Boehner (speaker 2011-2015) and Paul Ryan (2015-2019) also left the office because it proved too difficult to tame Republican radicals. Boehner was a mild-mannered moderate who faced the rising Tea Party. He could not convince these rejectionist radicals to vote for basic governing mechanisms like budget bills, nor could he convince them to work with the Democrats on consensual legislation.
Ryan too found controlling the radicals beyond his ability. Ryan was to the right of Boehner and more sympathetic to the anti-government goals of the Tea Party. But by the time Ryan was speaker, he confronted an even more disruptive force – Donald Trump and intense personality cult which quickly grew up around him.
Trump has had a baleful influence on governance. His aggressive belligerence encouraged an intense rejectionism among his acolytes. Compromise was interpreted as betrayal. Deals with the Democrats – which might have saved McCarthy’s speakership – were impossible. Trump’s own style emphasized media exposure and hijinks over the boring, hard work of governance. This infected the House GOP, which routinely demanded absolute compliance from their opponents at the cost of extreme retaliation like defaulting on the national debt or shutting down the government. The result was not triumph but chaos.
In short, as Trump has radicalized and infantilized the GOP, elected Republicans have followed him. It is becoming more and more difficult for the GOP to govern because of its extremism, refusal to compromise, and silliness. That an unserious, small-time congressman like Matt Gaetz could bring down McCarthy is emblematic of the GOP’s inability to be a functioning governing party.
No, the Democrats are Not to Blame for McCarthy’s Fall
This internal coup by a faction of the majority party is so unprecedented and bizarre, that there has been an effort to suggest it is somehow the fault of House Democrats as well. In a strictly mathematical sense, this is true. Democrats voted with the House rebels to kick out McCarthy.
But politically, this is simply bizarre. As Kevin Drum points out, speaker elections have never relied on the minority party. Indeed, that violates our modern conception of the office as a partisan one. It is held by the majority party and functions as the majority leadership role. The speakership is in the Constitution as a public, not partisan, office, but in practice, it has been a partisan position for a long time.
Nor did McCarthy offer any concessions to attract Democratic support for his speakership. That reflects the general dysfunction and unseriousness about governance which has befallen the GOP under Trump. Too many Republican officials are too captive to Trump’s truculent, unbending, media-focused political style. This makes for great TV and runs up the donations, but it is disastrous for the bland business of day-to-day government.
Indeed, we should expect this to be the basic re-election argument from President Joe Biden next year. Biden is boring and unexciting, but that is what is needed in government. Trump is fun and exciting, but vacuous and incapable. And that approach to politics is spreading, which is why GOP majorities in the House are routinely incapable of meeting minimum governance requirements.
The Policy Fallout
The downside of all this governing dysfunction is immediate. A government shutdown is looming. If the House GOP cannot pass spending bills – either because it lacks a speaker or its radicals insist on voting against almost everything – then the government will close. A collateral casualty will also be aid to Ukraine. The trumpized GOP opposes Ukraine aid, so this may a beneficial side-effect for them. But the larger problem of ungovernability in the US will only worse as the GOP becomes more and more wayward.