Chaos in the US House of Representatives

The Republican-controlled US House of Representatives just voted to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) from his post, a first in the chamber’s history. The vote was 216 to 210; all of the Democrats in the chamber voted with eight Republican ultraconservative critics of McCarthy to strip the speaker of his post. The move came after one member of his caucus, ultraconservative Florida Republican Matt Gaetz, proposed a motion to vacate—a parliamentary procedure akin to a vote of no confidence in the speaker of the House—against McCarthy following months of disagreement and acrimony between the two.

Gaetz’s motion was only possible because McCarthy agreed to change the rules governing such motions (allowing a single member of the House to bring one to the floor) during his run for the post last January. McCarthy was able to secure the speakership after a grueling series of 15 rounds of voting, during which he had to make many serious concessions to Gaetz and his cohort, including concerning the right to propose a motion to vacate. Seven other Republican members joined Gaetz in ousting McCarthy: Andy Biggs and Eli Crane of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado, Tim Burchett of Tennessee, Bob Good of Virginia, Nancy Mace of South Carolina, and Matt Rosendale of Montana.

For the Republicans who voted to oust him, it was McCarthy’s untrustworthiness to keep promises that he made during his election to the post that did him in. Gaetz and his colleagues blamed McCarthy for compromising with Democrats on various issues, despite Republican opposition. But for the Democrats, it was the former speaker’s apparent lack of gratitude and his lies about them that drove them to support the motion to dismiss him. Only two days earlier, he had tried to blame Democrats for the near-failure of legislation to avert a government shutdown, legislation that only passed because Democrats voted for it, while 90 Republicans voted against it.

The speaker’s ouster has halted any legislative action in the House of Representative until an alternative is elected. Of immediate concern is important legislation to avert a government shutdown that, without intervention, will occur 45 days from the deal that was struck on September 30. If there is no speaker by mid-November, the US government will halt almost all activity because of a lack of legislation to fund it. McCarthy announced that he will not run for the position again, and the Republican caucus is to hold consultations among itself on Tuesday, October 11 in preparation for a possible vote the day after, Wednesday, October 12. In the meantime, North Carolina Republican Representative Patrick McHenry will be interim speaker.

Thus far, there is no obvious Republican replacement for McCarthy. However, there are potential successors who will have to combine an almost impossible number of qualities and skills to undertake the duties of the position as the party begins preparations for congressional and presidential elections in 2024. The choice for speaker must have the ability to unify a very fractious Republican conference in the chamber, the willingness to compromise on legislation acceptable to Democrats, and the skills necessary to work with a Democrat-controlled Senate. But the way things are going with the Republican members of the House does not augur well for a quick successor or a workable legislative agenda in the short or long term.

But it must be said that the next speaker of the House will obviously be a Republican from among those who voted against the motion to vacate. Frontrunners include Steve Scalise and Garrett Graves of Louisiana, Interim Speaker Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, Tom Emmer of Minnesota, Elise Stefanik of New York, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Tom Cole of Oklahoma. Scalise was majority leader under McCarthy, and may be considered the most likely to succeed him. He is seen as a moderate, but will be able to convince the few who voted to oust McCarthy to support his approach to politics as speaker. However, last August he announced that he has cancer, which might affect his chances.

Graves was a close associate of McCarthy who gave him the important mission of negotiating with the White House to raise the US debt ceiling last May. McHenry was also a close ally of McCarthy and helped Graves in the debt ceiling negotiations. Emmer is the Republican House whip. He has said that he is not interested in the position, but he could be convinced by others who are looking for someone with experience running elections for the House. Elise Stefanik is the Republican Conference chair and the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House. She was previously a moderate and later became an ardent supporter of former President Donald Trump. She then worked to oust Trump critic Republican Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming from her leadership position.

Jim Jordan is the chair of the Judiciary Committee in the House and an ardent supporter of former President Trump. He may not have enough support among Republicans because he rejects compromises with Democrats. Tom Cole is the chair of the Rules Committee and a moderate, but he may not have a chance because the ultraconservatives are not likely to vote for him. Finally, some Republican members of the House who continue to support former President Donald Trump—despite the many indictments against him for illegal activities—may indeed “draft” him to be the next speaker.

As of this writing, Scalise and Jordan have announced their intention to run for the speaker position. It is not known whether any others will do so.

Whoever becomes the next speaker of the House may not be able to easily shake off the image this debacle presents of the United States as an example of chaotic democratic politics. Despite being one of the oldest parliaments in the world and an expression of popular democracy, the US House of Representatives today presents a negative image that, paradoxically, redoubles the message to both democracies and autocratic regimes around the world that democracy needs responsible politicians to survive and thrive. However, the leaders of authoritarian states like China, Russia, Egypt, and others are likely pleased that many American politicians, specifically Republican representatives of the people, are incapable of acting as guardians of democracy and the United States’ reputation. They will therefore find more reason to continue to fight political openness in their societies, pointing to the US in order to accuse democracy of being a vehicle for chaos and instability.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Twitter/Kevin McCarthy