Democracy works in strange ways, especially in a democratic country that is almost evenly split into two opposing Parties, as is the United States in 2023. One of the consequences is that a small focused minority can wield the balance of power, as shown in the US House of Representatives where on October 3, 8 right-wing Republicans succeeded in ending the tenure of the Speaker of the House, one of the most powerful positions in the US Government, second in line to the Presidency after the Vice-President. For the first time ever, a vote to “vacate the chair” led to the ouster of the Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, exhibiting the open strife within the Republican Party and leaving one of the two Chambers of the US Congress in a state of chaos.
We can understand these unprecedented events only by going back to the Mid-term election of November 2022, when the President’s Party, the Democrats, did better than expected by keeping control of the Senate and by limiting their losses in the House, leaving the Republican Party with a tiny 222 to 213 majority in the House of Representatives. To pass a measure where it is expected that the 213 Democrats will vote as a block against it, the Republican majority can afford to lose no more than 5 Republican votes. It is this equation that gives enormous power to a small minority. The right wing of the Republican Party, the MAGA Republicans, already used this power to extract from McCarthy major concessions to elect him House Speaker, after a 15-vote marathon in January 2023 during which he agreed to change House rules to allow a single member of the House to present a “motion to vacate”, a procedure leading to a vote to determine if McCarthy would remain Speaker. Many predicted at the time, correctly, that such a concession would inevitably lead to the ousting of the Speaker.
It is sad to note that what triggered the drama was the unexpected bipartisan move by McCarthy last weekend, to avoid a government shutdown. In spite of agreeing to most of their demands, McCarthy was unable last week to get his right flank, the very people who this week voted him out of office, to agree to a measure to avoid a government shutdown, so he felt obliged to turn to the Democrats, to get their cooperation to join many Republicans in passing a last-minute stopgap measure to keep the government funded for 45 days.
In the way the US government works, Congress passes laws approving expenditures, but also requires separate actions to authorize funding of those expenditures (just as it requires agreement to increase government debt ceiling, as we saw in the near-crisis in June of this year), and if Congress refuses to authorize funding, then a major portion of the government ceases to function, in what is referred to as a “government shutdown”. There have been 21 government shutdowns in the past, and those experiences have shown that the Party that is blamed for a shutdown tends to pay a political price in the next election, so McCarthy had good reason to try and find a compromise to avoid a shutdown, even if it meant infuriating his right wing. The reality that he was severely punished for doing the “right thing”, finding a reasonable compromise with the opposing Party, is a sure signal of the difficulties to come, particularly as the US today has a split government: the Presidency and the Senate are controlled by the Democrats, the House of Representatives by the Republicans. Since most measures require approval of the three power centers, if the right wing of the Republicans in the House won’t allow any compromise with the Democrats, one can legitimately ask how the government will be able to function.
What is going to happen next? The House cannot undertake any business without first electing a new Speaker. They have agreed to return to Washington next Tuesday, with the first potential vote for a new Speaker next Wednesday, October 11. The Republicans have the majority, the Speaker by definition should be a Republican, but can the Republicans agree on a candidate who can garner 216 votes, meaning that person must receive some of the MAGA Republican votes (in a Speaker election all the Democrats will vote for their Democratic House leader Hakeem Jeffries who will always fall short of a majority as he only gets Democratic votes)?
In the vote to oust the Speaker, all of the Democrats voted in unison against McCarthy. According to normal House practice, this was expected, it is not for the Democrats to get involved with Republican squabbles. The morning of the vote, the Democratic caucus (all of the Democrats in the House) met to define a common position, and it became clear that not a single Democrat had any appetite to save McCarthy. No one trusted him. He had signed an agreement with Biden in May of 2023 to raise the debt ceiling and set government expenditures for 2 years, he promptly reneged on the agreement, he had infuriated Democrats by launching an impeachment inquiry against President Biden without any evidence of wrongdoing, he had said he would never ask for Democratic support to save his job and had disparaged Democrats as recently as last weekend. In their meeting, the Democrats agreed on a common stance not to save McCarthy. Will they come to regret that? Might they end up with a Speaker even more difficult to deal with than McCarthy? Or will the Republican Party pay its inability to govern by losing its majority in the 2024 House elections?
Is it conceivable that a moderate Republican Speaker candidate that is less disliked than McCarthy could attract some Democratic votes to secure election without the MAGA Republicans? Although this scenario is not inconceivable, it is highly unlikely in the poisoned political climate in Washington. An even more inconceivable scenario would be that a few Republicans would accept to vote for the Democrat Hakeem Jeffries as Speaker. So we are going to have to wait and see until the Republicans get their act together enough to elect a Speaker, however long that takes, and then we will almost certainly observe total gridlock between a House controlled by right-wing Republicans and a Senate controlled by Democrats.
And Congress has major issues to face, immediately. The McCarthy inspired avoidance of Government shutdown is for 45 days until November 17, just 6 weeks away, and that agreement left out much needed funding for Ukraine, supported by many in both Parties but opposed by some Republicans in the House. Can the Republicans get their act together in time to deal with these and other major issues?
What about the position of ex-President Trump, the master disrupter who likes to sow chaos and who has considerable influence among the Republicans in the House (less so in the Senate)? So far, he has steered clear of the battle within the Republican Party, in part to carefully protect his image as an “outsider” to the inefficient Washington establishment, and also perhaps because he and his aides see little personal benefit for him to get involved.
So we are left to witness the chaos and confusion in Washington, adding another sad chapter in the international reputation of the US during these times of exceptional turbulence in American politics.