Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The MAGA Mess on Capitol Hill


"The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day" (U.S. Constitution, 20th Amendment, section 2). 

And so the new Congress (including NY's now infamous Congressman-elect Santos) has assembled as prescribed, with the Republicans replacing the Democrats in ostensible "control" of the House of Representatives, and the Democrats keeping "control" of the Senate. The extreme difference between the two parties was quickly evident in Democrats' unified front behind their chosen leadership and the Republicans' internal shambles. Of course, the Republicans' lack of any significant legislative agenda together with the inevitable dysfunctionality of divided government has always made it likely that the House will be more about performative investigating (and possibly impeaching) than legislating. 

But, before anything can happen, the House has to choose its new Speaker. Normally, the party caucuses have settled on their candidates, and the vote is pro forma, a celebratory ceremonial occasion, when Representatives bring their families and take pictures together. But not this year!  

In one sense, it may hardly seem to matter which Republican becomes Speaker, since the Republicans' pathetically small majority means that 118th Congress will be fundamentally governed by the most extreme MAGA radicals in the Republican caucus. That said, the failure (so far) to be able to elect a Speaker further highlights the internal crackup within the already obviously dysfunctional Republican party. Not only did 19 Republicans defect from McCarthy on the first ballot, but to the Republicans's supreme embarrassment Democrat Jeffries actually won a plurality on the first ballot Jeffries 212, McCarthy 203, Other Republicans 19).

The last time the first vote failed, in 1923, it took three days and nine ballots before a speaker. was elected. (The all-time record was 33 ballots in 1855.) A repeat performance might please the chaos agents in the Republican caucus but would otherwise traumatize an already deeply dysfunctional and wounded institution.

It is a by now familiar manifestation of congressional dysfunction that Congress seems addicted to resolving crises at the last possible minute. So there was always the thought that maybe some last-minute solution might be found, or, at least, that the Republican dissenters, having successfully humiliated McCarthy by having forced a second and third ballot, might eventually relent and give him his gavel. The longer this goes on, however, such a scenario seems that much less likely. Even if and when the Republicans can elect a Speaker (whether McCarthy or someone else), how can they hope to govern effectively, whatever "govern" may mean in this MAGA mess world thy have created?

As I write this, the House has adjourned until tomorrow. The vote on the second ballot was the same as the first (Jeffries 212, McCarthy, 203, Other 19). By then, however, the Republican dissidents had coalesced around Ohio Congressman Jim Jordon, who had actually endorsed McCarthy, all of which suggested a deepening degree of intransigence, which continued into the third ballot, at which the Jordan vote increased by one at McCarthy's expense (Jeffries 212, McCarthy, 202, Other 19). Whatever (and whenever) the final outcome, after decades of encouraging extremism, the Republican party's chickens are coming home to roost!

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