The dirty laundry of the U.S. House, now on full display, is what piles up when elected officials place narrow interests and grudges ahead of the business of governing.
A small caucus of about 40 Republican extremists have managed over the past couple of weeks to compel a worn-out House speaker, John Boehner, to announce his retirement. The heir apparent, majority leader Kevin McCarthy, took himself out of the running. The most logical substitute, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — a onetime vice-presidential candidate with thoughts of a future run for the White House in his head — is so far declining to volunteer for what has become a miserable, career-threatening job.
Americans not familiar with the inside baseball of Washington ponder how 40 Republicans can prevent a speaker from being elected when 247 of the House’s 435 members represent the Republican Party.
The obvious answer is that 218 votes are required to elect a speaker, and when you subtract 40 votes the math doesn’t work. But underlying that arithmetic is a deep political dysfunction.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
The 40 members of the so-called House Freedom Caucus, which includes Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, are bullies who gain power through obstruction. They view any congressional achievement — even one as essential as funding the government — as an unacceptable concession to President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress.
They also are whiners. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Republican from South Carolina, told National Public Radio that the caucus wants a speaker who will pretty much give them free rein. They want more control over what bills come up for a vote, what amendments get added and who gets to chair committees. In short, they want a House where the playing field has been leveled and the speaker doesn’t have so much power. It would be a lot like allowing the kindergartners to run the elementary school.
On issues, they have their radioactive lodes. Their demands are absolute and unreasonable. No federal funding for Planned Parenthood. No “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. The derailing of the Obama administration’s pact with Iran. Of course, the repeal of “Obamacare.”
Some of those views are actually held by a majority of Republicans. Boehner permitted the House to take countless futile votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But on matters such as immigration, hard liners have brought Congress to a standstill.
Boehner, McCarthy and other Republicans have treated these extremists with far too much deference. They fear more moderate members being “postcarded” during election season by powerful political groups who share the same unreasonable views as the congressional troublemakers. Those groups hold a great deal of sway over our political process, and the nation is the worse for it.
The job of House speaker used to be a launching pad from which a politician could rack up accomplishments, sometimes historical ones. Somehow under Boehner, the speaker’s job has devolved into a joyless tiptoeing act, a search for a balance that will appease the extremists without alienating the American public.
Boehner never looked so happy as the day he announced he was resigning, although so far he hasn’t gotten the chance. He’ll stay in the job until the House manages to elect a successor, which is the last thing the extremists want.
The Freedom Caucus is many things, but it is not strategic. Its obstinacy has forced Boehner to seek Democratic cooperation for certain votes, which only infuriates the rebels even more. They seem to have no long game in mind, other than bullying the congressional agenda farther to the right.
Most Americans don’t want a Congress that acts this way. They want their elected representatives to go to Washington and work together to solve problems and move the country forward.
For the moment though, this is what we have: dysfunction and gridlock, brought on by Republican intraparty feuding.
Unfortunately, gerrymandered congressional districts and the outsized role of money in politics are making it very hard to move government back to the middle.
In an interview with National Review columnist Rich Lowry, McCarthy reflected on whether the House was governable. “I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom.”
Witnessing the disarray, the bluster, the befuddlement, the public humiliation and the stalled agendas in Washington, it’s difficult to think we’re not already there.