On their return to the Capitol this week, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives exposed its fragility and unpredictability, both of which herald an unproductive political cycle in the U.S. The candidate expected to occupy the post of House Speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, failed 13 times to garner the 218 votes necessary to carry out the function he has long coveted.* An impasse of a magnitude not seen in a century.
Around 20 Republicans hostile to McCarthy blocked his path with a formidable mix of solidarity and obstinance though, on the 13th try, he finally succeeded at rallying some of them, but still not enough to seal a victory.
Nearly all the members of the Freedom Caucus, born from the ashes of the Tea Party, are in Washington with a singular objective: take the party even further to the right, put the Democrats on trial over the findings of the committee investigating the Capitol assault of Jan. 6, 2021, and limit the spending power of the government to the point of paralysis, if necessary.
For their first exploit, and not the least, the caucus succeeded at neutralizing a major institution in American government: the House of Representatives. This is the legislative arm that Republicans wrested control of last November during the midterm elections.
At the end of this laughable spectacle, one has to wonder if the ambition driving McCarthy will not lead to the party’s downfall. American political observers have noted that he has only one principle: win the post at any cost, even to the point of sacrificing other principles. From one rebuff to the next, he multiplied concessions to a vocal minority of the Republican Party. He is even ready to accept that one single elected official can trigger a vote of confidence, which means he will live with a permanent sword of Damocles hanging over his head. Not to be forgotten, the Freedom Caucus has already brought down two House speakers: John Boehner and Paul Ryan. The representative from California is also prepared to offer extremists key posts on Congressional committees, allowing them influence in the legislative agenda.
McCarthy’s vulnerable position says less about Donald Trump’s loss of ascendancy than the irrepressible zeal of the ultraconservatives within the Republican Party. It should be noted that McCarthy is scarcely more inspiring than the former president. He was one of Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters. Blowing hot and cold on the Jan. 6 insurrection, he voted against the certification of the election of President Joe Biden (as did 14 members of the Freedom Caucus.) The elected officials who made life hard for him this week are “creatures” that emerged from his political action. McCarthy meticulously cajoled these populists drunk on their lies, who critique him with disdain describing him as a member of the political elite (the “swamp”) who are responsible for all of Washington’s ills — real or imagined.
The Republican Party will be subjected to blackmail by this minority faction, half of whose members come from three states: Florida, Texas and Arizona. The democratic deficit is glaring. A handful of officials unrepresentative of Republican voters (and even less of the electorate itself) will be in a position to influence the legislative agenda for the next two years. The Speaker of the House will be the beneficiary of a diminished moral and political authority, which works in their immediate interest. The ultraconservatives did not succeed in making the expected gains during the midterm elections. They are on track to transform, with little subtlety, their lack of success at the polls into a triumph within the party they have taken hostage.
Torn between a decline of a tradition of pragmatism and the rising intransigence of populists who want to set fire to the house of democracy, the Republicans this week offered a foretaste of what awaits democracy in America. The House of Representatives is a viable institution and functions when there are clear and unified majorities and a president in a position of authority to deliver votes. If these conditions are not met, the Republicans will be condemned to anemic legislative advances. And they will offer the Democrats the opportunity to present themselves as a national unity government in 2024 as long as they do not themselves succumb to the pressures of their radical wing.
*Editor’s Note: Rep. McCarthy secured enough votes to become Speaker of the House of Representatives after 15 rounds of voting on Jan. 7, 2023.