A SPEAKER WITH NOTHING TO SAY
By Jim Kent
As I write this, it is about 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, 6 January 2023, and the Honourable Members have finished their twelfth ballot in the speakership voteathon with McCarthy still needing four votes to take the gavel; they are now into Lucky Number 13. Somebody—almost certainly McCarthy—will probably be Speaker of the House by the time you read this. None of this is of course a bar to tedious pontification, of which I always have an ample supply on hand.
The press have been saying there are no members of the House until they’re sworn in, which is not strictly accurate. The Constitution (Amendment XX, Section 1, in case you’re following along at home) is quite clear that the terms of Senators and Representatives start automatically at noon on 3 January. So, there are members, but under a 1948 statute (2 USC 25; this will not be on the exam), they can’t do anything until the Speaker swears them in. (Any member of the House can swear the Speaker in, and you may remember from the previous sentence that immediately at noon there are lots of members of the House.)
It is almost certain that the folks who drafted this legislation didn’t think of including a provision for the case where there is no Speaker, since that had not occurred for a couple of decades. This situation is awkward, which is why it is rarely allowed to happen. It brings a quarter of the policy machinery of the US government to a screeching halt, which may not seem that different to most people, but eventually has several important implications. From my point of view, one of these is that the staff can’t get paid. I have been on several legislative staffs in various jurisdictions, so those are My People. Others may care more about the fact that no legislation can be passed or even officially considered in the House, including for example the budget.
Of course, Representative Charlie McCarthy, the President-Eject’s ventriloquist dummy and at this moment still aspiring Speaker, has essentially promised that the House won’t be doing much for the next two years except investigating some Democrats and impeaching the rest. So again, not easy to spot the difference—but there’s that pesky budget and the completely pointless approval of a new debt ceiling and stuff like that.
The good news for those of us who are bloviating pontificators is that there a couple of notable features of the impasse that we can still bang on about. The first is reassuring—the apparent irrelevance of Donald Trump to his former toadies in my party. The second is discouraging—the moronic inaction of the House Democrats, who could have ended the impasse and helped to save the country on like the third ballot.
First, the cheery bit: The loonies that Trump created have consistently refused to heed his instructions to vote for McCarthy. It is enjoyable and increasingly easy to imagine a telephone conversation in which he tells Gaetz or Boebert or one of that crowd who got into office by kissing him fervently on all four cheeks, “I won’t endorse you for re-election if you don’t vote for Kev,” and they respond, “Frankly, I don’t need your endorsement, which you may not have noticed is now political poison. My endorsement of you might matter to you in my district, but your endorsement of me won’t matter at all to me in my district.” This has the charm of being true for most of his clown car passengers, although the fact that his mien and methods have metastasized isn’t exactly a bright spot.
This leads inexorably to a new subsection of the continuing conundrum about the recent career of M. Petits-Doigts: If his own crowd doesn’t care about him any more, why do the press and the Democrats keep giving him air time? I’ve got nothing on this, except that it is likely related to the perennial lack of imagination and insight among journalists and politicians, both of which groups are constantly chewing more than they can bite off.
Onward and downward: The Democrats could have had this sorted, to the benefit of both parties and the country, on Day Two of the hostage crisis. However, they have emulated my gang by putting party loyalty ahead of the national interest.
A few days ago the Democrats in the Ohio House of Representatives did what the Democrats in the US House could have done any time (and still might, although it’s more improbable every minute; you’ll know by now whether it happened). They got together with a group of grownup Republicans to elect a more normal Republican Speaker, dumping the lad supported by the Republican caucus.
This will have several advantages besides breaking a damaging deadlock. First, the Ohio House will have an adult Speaker, so the chamber can conduct business like a real legislative body instead of a multiyear temper tantrum. Second, the Ohio House will have a Speaker who has vivid knowledge of the need to cooperate across party lines to get things done. Third, the reputation of the Republican Party among independents and other swing voters will be much improved, and probably so will the Democrats’ reputation. Fourth (and I am assuming this because I don’t know the details of the deal), the Democrats will have to be given some committee chairs and maybe some rules changes and other perklets . This will increase their leverage in the legislative process, and also benefit the Republicans by giving them somebody to share the blame with if any major projects go south.
So, if Charlie McCarthy and his associated Mortimer Snerds run the House for the next two years, don’t forget to put some blame on The Other Guilty Party, who over and over again nominated a person they knew couldn’t win instead of nudging the whole enterprise toward at least some level of sanity.
Me, I’m headed for the package store. Somebody has broken in and drunk all my bourbon. Again. Y’all have a lovely 2023.
Epilogue, or maybe Epitaph: As expected, McCarthy has managed to wrangle his apostates back into the One True Church, making sure to give credit for this success to his puppetmaster. He has sacrificed many of the useful powers of the Speakership and made the institution of the House look ridiculous—mostly but not exclusively his own party, which is also mine. He is very good at giving away things that don’t really belong to him.
What has been happening, by the way, is not actually politics, and it is certainly not governance. Politics is where you negotiate and compromise and get things done, usually but not always through government. Both parties have forsworn this practice in favour of shouting bumper-sticker slogans at each other, and also at the rest of us in the belief that we prefer mudfights to debates. Maybe they’re right. I hope not.