In the aftermath of the tumultuous election of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, it’s difficult not to see the 118th Congress as an impending train wreck.
Even in the most tranquil moments in American history, a president of one party facing a divided Congress is rarely a marriage made in heaven. But the chemistry in this situation, in which a relatively united Democratic Party narrowly controls the Senate while Republicans are at war with each other in the House, is particularly toxic.
Not since the turbulent period before the Civil War through Reconstruction has Congress been as bitterly divided and less able to deliver on what the country needs.
While it may be premature to declare that McCarthy traded away all the position’s power in order to gain the prestigious title, hold the gavel, and inhabit the speaker’s suite of offices in the Capitol Building, it would be hard to refute that today.
After more than three decades with power in the House centralized in the hands of powerful speakers such as Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Newt Gingrich, what happens if this new Republican leadership becomes neutered? A historically weak speaker usually means more-powerful committee chairs, but that looks unlikely at this point.
On Monday night, the House took up proposed rules changes that would badly undermine the chairs of the Rules, Ways and Means, Appropriations, and Armed Services committees, positions normally populated by members hand-selected by leadership.
No party likes to look divided and incompetent. Democrats suffered through a nine-month stretch like that a year ago. But the fact that they ended up not getting massacred in November shows that it is survivable.
Republicans should pray that this, too, shall pass. But looking down the road, it is easy to get concerned, if not outright depressed, that during the year the government’s debt limit will have to be raised to avoid an economic calamity.
Add a farm bill that is crucial to rural America and a host of other must-pass measures, and it just isn’t easy to see how that all happens. Can so many House members who have been in Congress for such a short period of time fathom the consequences of various actions?
We have grown used to dire situations turning out OK in the end, but can we count on that now?
When did our politics start getting this crazy? Just three decades ago, we had a left-of-center Democratic Party and a right-of-center Republican Party. But both were still ideologically and geographically diverse, with plenty of members who were ready, willing, and able to temper the excesses of the ideologues and hotheads in their caucuses.
That loss of soothing influences, which included moderate and conservative Democrats and liberal and moderate Republicans—many elected from cities and suburbs—has had a profound effect on the system on so many levels.
Perhaps the race to today’s chaos can be traced to 1993, when Gingrich staged a coup in the House Republican Conference, effectively pushing out the genteel Minority Leader Bob Michel and igniting a wild ride that led to a government shutdown in 1995 and the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998.
Then there was Donald Trump’s ride down the gold elevator in New York City to announce his candidacy for president in the summer of 2015, culminating in his Feb. 9, 2016, New Hampshire Republican primary victory with 35.25 percent of the vote, besting more-traditional Republicans such as Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio, and shaking the Republican Party to its foundations.
The Gingrich coup and Trump’s ride down the elevator culminated last Friday in a scene on the House floor that no one in modern politics has witnessed, as McCarthy stumbled his way to the speaker’s office on a 15th ballot.
Among the most memorable moments was the widely reported scuffle on the House floor, ably reported by Aaron Blake in The Washington Post:
“Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) voted 'present' and left McCarthy at exactly 50 percent of the vote.
"That led to a near-physical altercation in which Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama had to be restrained from a physical confrontation with Gaetz.
“Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) remarked of the scene, ‘People shouldn’t be drinking, especially when you’re a redneck, on the House floor.’ He added of Rogers, 'I would drop him like a bag of dirt.'"
Blake added: “Regardless of the alleged role of alcohol, the dynamics that led to this scene and these words aren’t going anywhere.”
Notable was Burchett’s previous flurry of both local and national press in 1999, when as a Tennessee state senator, he proposed a roadkill food bill that said, “Wild animals accidentally killed by a motor vehicle may be possessed by any person for personal use and consumption.” Burchett was later elected mayor of Knox County before his successful race for Congress in 2018.
As Blake noted in the Post piece, Republican John Boehner, looking back on his own election as speaker in 2011, found that it was like getting elected mayor of “Crazytown.” It’s hard to argue with Boehner now.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on January 9, 2023.
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