In Monty Python’s film, “The Life of Brian,” the lead character hangs hopelessly on the cross when a small army arrives to rescue him. His relief is short-lived as Otto, the leader, promptly announces that they are the crack suicide squad trained to kill themselves “within 20 seconds.” The scene came to mind yesterday as eight Republicans joined Democrats to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy. It was a moment that perfectly captured our politics of chaos and disruption, including the refusal of a single Democrat to prevent the House from going through a week of unnecessary turmoil. There was a time when opposing members would oppose such moves in the interest of House as an institution. This is not one of those times.
The most telling aspect of the ouster was that there was no plan other than vacating the chair. It had all of the logic of Monty Python’s Judean People’s Front Crack Suicide Squad. Eight members rushed forward and committed ritualistic suicide.
This is the first time in history that a speaker has been ousted despite the fact that McCarthy had all but eight of the Republicans supporting his retention. It is telling that we have gone through wars, economic crises, and social upheavals without resorting to this type of nuclear option.
These members have valid objections to the use of continuing resolutions and the dishonest process used for years to steadily increase our debt. I get that. What I do not get is how vacating the chair will change anything.
Speaker McCarthy did make major changes in returning to regular order. There was more transparency and empowerment of members. It was far more democratic after years of almost autocratic rule by the leadership. Rules were changed as promised and greater amendments allowed on the floor. Ironically, it was the Democrats who embraced the all-powerful speaker model with reduced ability for members to read, let alone challenge, bills.
Notably, in his farewell remarks late last night, McCarthy said that Nancy Pelosi had assured him that he could return to the rule allowing any member to seek to vacate the chair because she and the Democrats would stand with the Speaker. If so, that was a statement consistent with the long values of the House. There were certain acts that were deemed as beyond the pale. Vacating the chair to make a statement was viewed as inimical to the institution. Despite decades of fierce political divisions, there were times when partisanship would be set aside.
As Democrats profess alarm over government shutdowns and the lack of legislation on key issues, this vacating of the chair will only delay business in the “People’s House.” It was certainly a thrilling moment for many, but few would argue that it was good for the institution. Indeed, they are more likely to get an even more conservative and strident speaker than McCarthy.
As for Republicans, they will now have to negotiate with Rep. Matt Gaetz and the other seven members to be able to resume business. In the meantime, much of the business on the border, the budget, and the impeachment inquiry will have to wait in abeyance.
At the same time, the chaos could well cost moderate Republicans their seats as the media portrays the GOP as careening and unable to govern effectively. That would then hand the House back to the Democrats in 2024. McCarthy was credited with raising a huge amount of money to reelect Republicans and coordinating a strategy to take the House majority.
The new speaker will face the same realities in dealing with a Democratically-controlled Senate and a Democratic White House in getting anything through Congress.
This effort would have been far more convincing if there was a cognizable plan and preferred alternative at the outset. The over 200 GOP members supporting McCarthy are not going to materially yield their positions to eight members. I simply do not see how the ouster will make a material difference while costing the GOP in terms of both time and optics.
The comedian Steven Martin once said “chaos in the midst of chaos isn’t funny, but chaos in the midst of order is.”
He is right. There is nothing funny in the chaos in Congress.