Below is my column in The Messenger on how the Speaker’s Chair has become the latest manifestation of our politics of chaos. This includes the truly bizarre suggestion of the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin that the GOP “invited” the terror attack in Israel by allowing eight members and the entire Democratic block to vacate the chair. While Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.) received the most votes in the GOP caucus yesterday, the party remains divided between him and Jim Jordan (R., Oh.).
“Republicans’ weakness invites terror.” Those words on X (formerly known as Twitter) from the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin perfectly captured our new politics of chaos. Rubin and others either accused Republicans of benefitting or actually inviting terrorism with the removal of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
In reality, the vacant speaker’s chair will not materially affect our response to the massacre in Israel. Moreover, you have to take leave of any sense of reality to believe that Hamas was watching the U.S. House of Representatives to coordinate this attack. The massacre happened to occur on the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago.
And, no, the Yom Kippur War was not launched due to any looming motion to vacate the chair of then-House Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.). Indeed, when that war started, Vice President Spiro Agnew was preparing to resign over a tax-evasion scandal. No one suggested that his pending vacancy invited the 1973 attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria.
Those also were bitter political times, but there still remained a few red lines in politics. There were some things that the leadership of both major political parties would not do.
After House Democrats voted unanimously, along with eight Republicans, to vacate the speaker’s chair, many politicians and some pundits are now deriding the GOP for the chaos of not having a House speaker as a war rages in the Middle East.
The decision of House Democrats to support the effort of members like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to decapitate the House leadership was a defining moment for the House as an institution.
House Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) expressed shock at the vote that she helped to engineer, intoning that “this is a solemn day in the U.S. House of Representatives … Right-wing MAGA extremism has enveloped the Republican Party and taken over the business of the People’s House.”
The moment represented a final collapse of any institutional loyalty in the House.
Some of us have a deep love for the House as an institution. I began my association with the House as a teenaged leadership page in the 1970s and continued through to my legal representation of the House in federal court. I have testified more than 100 times over the last four decades on a wide array of constitutional and statutory issues. I also have represented both Democratic and Republican members in court.
Over that long period, I never lost faith that the House would rise to the occasion when members had to act in the interests of not just the institution but the nation.
As a Madisonian scholar, my faith rested in the strong institutional interests left to members by the Constitution. While shifting majorities and political issues have often left bitter divisions, Madison gave all members incentives to jealously protect their institution in carrying out constitutional functions.
Despite our periods of political rage and division, no Congress has ever vacated the chair. That says a great deal about our politics today. There was a time when the Democrats would never have vacated the chair just to disrupt the institution. Doing so is the politics of chaos to fit an age of rage. It is the same rage that leads someone like Rubin to declare that “we have to collectively, in essence, burn down the Republican Party. We have to level them because if there are survivors, if there are people who weather this storm, they will do it again.”
Consider the choice that the Democrats made with this vote. Former Speaker McCarthy insisted that his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), assured him that she would never support such a vote if a member like Gaetz sought to remove him. This past week, she denied making such a pledge. However, putting aside who is lying, it was a pledge that she should have made and kept.
The Democrats elected to support a motion from a member — Gaetz — who they have denounced and despised for years. They did so despite the fact that McCarthy was facing opposition for having worked and compromised with Democrats to keep the government open. More importantly, they did so in the full knowledge that they were certain to get a more strident House Speaker when Republicans select a replacement. The chances of getting bipartisan legislation passed would be diminished, not enhanced, by the move. Yet, not one Democrat broke ranks and voted to prevent such chaos.
This week, McCarthy seemed to dangle the chance that he could be reinstated as the GOP divides between Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). A number of House Republicans are citing the war in Israel as calling for immediate action to fill the seat.
The fact, however, is that the Biden administration has all of the money and the ability needed to respond to this crisis. Congress has allowed billions in dollars to float around the Defense Department and other agencies. When the Obama administration effectively launched a war against Libya, it funded the entire campaign out of loose cash.
This crisis is not a vacuum of power — it is a vacuum of principle. McCarthy was a thrill-kill for his opponents. While expressing alarm at how the House could not operate with the speakership vacated, not a single Democrat crossed the aisle to support the institution by opposing the motion to vacate. Indeed, a small number of Democrats could have merely voted “present” to avoid the decapitation of the House leadership. Instead, they apparently wanted to disrupt the House.
So, Democrats supplied all but eight votes to vacate the chair and then immediately ran to cameras to express alarm that the House was now unable to function.
In her tweet, Rubin showed how chaos is worth the effort by accusing Republicans of fostering the terrorism that massacred more than 1,000 Israelis: “How about this: With US House in chaos and US military promotions on hold, Hamas struck. Republicans’ weakness invites terror.” It takes pure rage to seize upon an unspeakable crime against humanity and use it as a cudgel against one’s political opponents.
Even without the war, vacating the speaker’s chair is not just dysfunctional but dangerous for a democracy. It shows that there is no longer a loyal opposition that would support either a president or a House speaker to preserve the functioning of government. The vote did not invite terrorism — it invited chaos. And it has now succeeded to a degree that should give pause to every House Democrat — and to the eight Republicans who joined them — when they next consider yielding to the temptations of the moment as members of Congress.
Jonathan Turley, an attorney, constitutional law scholar and legal analyst, is the Shapiro Chair for Public Interest Law at The George Washington University Law School.