What’s worse than chaos? How about a power vacuum? All the beautiful people are bewailing the ouster of Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House yesterday because it is supposedly “thrusting the House into chaos.”
Right on cue we have the New York Times skirling that “Far-Right GOP Faction Throws House Into Chaos.” Cant watchers: notice the deployment of the term “far-right” as an intensifier. Not only chaos but chaos from a source the Times can get away with castigating as far right. (Extra credit: would the Times describe a dramatic action by the Squad as “far left”? If not, why not?)
On November 2, 1963, a CIA-instigated coup sparked the assassination of Vietnam president Ngô Đình Diệm. The trouble was, they had no one with whom to replace Diem. The results were not edifying.
How about Matt Gaetz and his seven Republicans who joined with 208 Democrats to vote to vacate the speakership? It was an unprecedented action. Never before had the Speakership been vacated by vote (though there have been a few attempts). Have they a successor in mind? House Majority Leader Steve Scalise is said to be angling for the job — and good on him if he succeeds.
If we’re talking about chaos, however, my favorite candidates whose names have been mentioned so far are Donald Trump and former House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes. One needn’t be a representative to qualify for the job, and the ensuing spectacle should either be tapped would certainly be entertaining.
But let’s leave that delicious if improbable fantasy to one side. What hath Matt Gaetz wrought by tipping over the apple cart of House “leadership” and “stability?” His chief complaints were that McCarthy was making “secret side deals” with the Biden administration to fund the Ukrainian war and, more generally, that McCarthy perpetuated an irresponsible funding regime whereby the House conducted its business by “omnibus” continuing resolutions rather than formulating a budget in which legislators could say yea or nay to specific line items. (Fun fact, Congress hasn’t passed a budget in twenty-seven years.)
I think there is a lot to what Gaetz had to say. McCarthy had such a hard time winning the speakership last January because his party commanded such a narrow majority. Consequently, a small group of conservatives (that’s English for what the New York Times calls “far right” or “hardcore”) wielded more influence in the constitutionally sluggish go-along-to-get-along body.
What happens now? A lot of Republicans are unhappy with Gaetz. Newt Gingrich, for example, called him a “traitor” to the party and suggested he be expelled from the House. (I wish Newt had been that exercised over the behavior of Jamaal Bowman for “obstructing an official proceeding” by pulling a fire alarm in order to disrupt a vote last week.)
I think there are two big but conflicting issues here. On the one hand, Gaetz demonstrated once again that Republicans find it difficult to unify and act with one voice. I say “Gaetz demonstrated,” but was the lack of unity entirely his fault? He was not the speaker; Kevin McCarthy was. Ask yourself this: would the Democrats have behaved with such abandon while Nancy Pelosi was speaker? The answer is no.
On the other hand, Gaetz, for all his melodrama, called attention to some big problems with the way the Congress has been conducting itself. The House is the place where spending is decided upon. The US is currently staggering under a $33 trillion debt. Spending is out of control. Oversight is as illusory as our southern border. Yet the House proceeds along its merry way perpetuating a “business-as-usual” that is no more sustainable than that “rules-based-international-order” people keep invoking as a mantra.
It is interesting that the House has appointed Representative Patrick McHenry, a McCarthy ally, as speaker pro tempore. His powers are pretty much limited to declaring the House in recess and entertaining nominations for the speakership. But he has managed to accomplish an outstanding janitorial task that McCarthy was too delicate or too craven to perform. He ousted Nancy Pelosi from her plush Capitol office so he could occupy it. A symbolic gesture, true, but gratifying nonetheless.
It will be a while before the dust settles from this (to use Karl Marx’s evocative term) “plastic moment.” Matt Gaetz’s assault will probably not be good for House Republicans. By challenging their complacency, Gaetz may also undermine their authority. That is why Newt Gingrich, among others, was so exercised.
The question is, though, whether the Republican status quo is beneficent or just a repackaged, lower-temperature version of what the Democrats have on offer: incontinent spending, foreign adventurism and capitulation to transnational globalist corporatism.
Matt Gaetz may have sown the wind. I do not think we’ll know for sure about the whirlwind until November 2024.