By Stephen Tuttle | Oct. 21, 2023
There was a time when we could reasonably rely on Democrats behaving like a dysfunctional family. There were southern Democrats who were overtly racist and opposed to any semblance of civil rights legislation versus the Democrats proposing that very legislation. There were the Vietnam War Democrat doves vs. the hawks, pro-life vs. pro-choice, gay rights vs. well, not so much.
But they never had a problem electing and reelecting Speakers of the House. Which brings us to the current congressional Republicans, who have taken dysfunction to new heights. To be fair, it’s a small group that doesn’t seem willing to play nice with others.
The fifth paragraph of Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution says, “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers…” (The authors spelled some words a bit differently than we do today and had a habit of capitalizing much.)
That is the sum total of our Constitution’s mention of a Speaker of the House. There are no rules delineated, no procedures outlined, just the requirement that a speaker be chosen. The document does allow the House to create its own rules.
All the current duties now enjoyed by the Speaker, which make it impossible for the U.S. House to function in that Speaker’s absence, were added internally as time progressed. The first Speakers did very little other than oversee the House and try to maintain decorum. Henry Clay, in 1811, was the first of the active and fully involved Speakers, and the job has become bigger and bigger over time. Most of the procedures now in use come from something known as “Jefferson’s Manual,” which the House semi-formally adopted in 1837.
The Speaker now assigns House members and bills to various committees, gives members permission to speak on the floor of the House, and even signs off on bills and resolutions passed by the House among his or her many duties. Not to mention the Speaker is next in the line of succession to the presidency right after the Vice President.
Republicans, who regained extremely narrow control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections, had a problem electing their Speaker from the beginning. Kevin McCarthy, a reliably conservative pro-Trump choice from a reliably conservative pro-Trump California district, was the odds-on favorite. A small cadre of election-denying extremists kept demanding more and more concessions from McCarthy.
It took 15 ballots before McCarthy could secure the Speaker’s gavel, and along the way, he agreed to something that was his eventual downfall—he accepted a rule change that would allow a single House member to bring a privileged motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair. (When Democrats were the majority and Nancy Pelosi was Speaker, a majority of the Democrat caucus was required to file such a motion.)
Some said McCarthy had sold his soul to secure the Speaker’s gavel, though it was not clear to which devil the sale had been made. Whatever, he always knew he was leading on a razor’s edge, and any vacillation from the wishes of those with whom he had made his deals could spell the end of his dream job. As a result, working with or compromising with Democrats was impossible, and when McCarthy finally did make such a compromise in order to pass a continuing budget resolution and avoid a government shutdown, a motion to vacate was made, a vote was taken. As expected, all Democrats voted against McCarthy, but it was the eight Republicans who cast votes against him that determined the outcome.
While Speakers have stepped down under pressure or voluntarily in the past, McCarthy was the first ever to be ousted by a vote after a motion to vacate. So Congress ground to a halt as of Tuesday, Oct. 3. You would think there would be some urgency in electing a new Speaker so Congress could go back to work. You would be wrong.
Two front running candidates emerged, Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio. Scalise was the early favorite but fell far short of the 218 votes (a majority of the House) needed and promptly withdrew from consideration. That left Jordan, an election-denier, occasional Jan. 6 conspiracy believer, and government shutdown fan. He once said he didn’t think there was anything that could convince him that Donald Trump did not win the 2020 election. Some believe he was actually communicating with the rioters and was somehow complicit in their behavior on Jan. 6, but no such hard evidence exists.
As this is being written (Oct. 17), Jordan is still 20 votes short of being elected Speaker. We’re beginning the third week with no Speaker of the House.
There’s a reason the most recent Gallup Poll puts our approval rating of Congress at 17 percent.