Republican infighting in the House of Representatives since the ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy two weeks ago isn’t so much creating dysfunction as it is exposing dysfunction.
Over the past 10 months, strange coalitions have been built and dispersed, candidates have risen and fallen, and private animosities have burst into public view. While the D.C. legacy media press has proven itself incapable of explaining any of the above (see: its description for the “hard right coalition” of Reps. Matt Gaetz, Nancy Mace and Ken Buck), the squabbling has clarified just how cracked up the Republican Party truly is.
The Grand Old Party (GOP) has long suffered from misalignment with its donor class and leadership holding completely different priorities from its voters and actually actual conservative members. The misalignment has been steadily widening for decades, but today, with some members openly calling on Republicans to align with Democrats just to keep the cash flowing, it’s clear the spine is broken.
Those members just successfully derailed Rep. Jim Jordan’s campaign for the speakership of the House. A fixture in conservative circles for over a decade, Jordan co-founded the conservative House Freedom Caucus in 2015, two years after Republican leadership co-opted the once-conservative Republican Studies Conference. When then-Speaker John Boehner iced conservatives out of his ruling coalition, Jordan joined a successful effort to oust the party leader.
Since those combative early years, however, he’s become a team player with House leadership, earning the ranking position on the Oversight Committee when Democrats held the majority, and eventually landing the chairmanship of the powerful Judiciary Committee. He became an ally to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, able to hold sway with conservative members of the GOP conference while maintaining productive relationships with House leadership.
That’s why McCarthy publicly backed Jordan in a speech on Friday to take the job he was ousted from. Still, even that move wasn’t enough for the roughly two dozen Republicans who blocked Jordan’s speakership. While some simply held a grudge over past personalities and battles, the broader reason was Jordan’s friendliness with the Republican right. Would he have kept the money rolling for the establishment, or would he have proven difficult for the appropriators to control?
While anger over the tanking of Rep. Steve Scalise’s run for speaker was apparent, the true interests of these establishment Republicans (and the major donors, who share their worries) were apparent in the headlines. From Reuters: “US Republican speaker nominee Jordan known as Ukraine aid skeptic.” And from Bloomberg: “Jordan’s lack of ties to business world making lobbyists nervous.” In Washington in 2023, these doubts constitute a black mark, damn the wishes of actual Republican voters.
And to be clear, since the drama over McCarthy’s replacement began two weeks ago, Republican voters made their wishes known. In the days after Jordan’s nomination by the GOP conference, small-dollar donations poured into Republican coffers–just as angry phone calls and emails poured into the offices of those Republicans who voted against him.
Those Republicans whined of “intimidation,” internally pressuring Jordan to condemn the attacks, as if he was ordering mean texts and phone calls to their offices from random Americans (he obliged, and condemned the attacks). Those Republicans balked at changing their position on Jordan, and proposed a deal to have a “speaker tempore” through the end of the year. In short: They would rather the speakership remain vacant than elect Jordan; they would rather break Congress than elevate someone they’re not confident they can control. They believe money for Ukraine and other business-as-usual items are worth permanent institutional damage.
And don’t be fooled: A speaker tempore is anything but tempore. In our fractured system, where the legislative branch has outright refused to fulfill its basic duties, temporary patches have a way of becoming permanent. That’s why Congress has passed continuing resolutions and omnibuses instead of real budgets for 27 years. That’s why, in a party as ideologically disparate as the GOP, a speaker tempore wielding all the power of a speaker could become standard fare.
“In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party,” far-left New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez observed in a January 2020 interview. “But in America, we are.”
The same holds true for the conservative wing of the GOP, and the Republican appropriators opposite them. As small-dollar donors and populist candidates continue to displace traditional party power, these schisms will only continue to grow.
Does anyone think that 2023 will be the last year Washington politicians, be they Republican or Democrat, fail to agree on a speaker? That this will be the last time D.C. ignores the lawmaker whom the voters want to see in charge? The last time Washington is tempted to put a Band-Aid on cracking glass? Why take the wheel, when autopilot keeps the money flowing to special interests?
Therein lies the incentive for placing the House in the hands of a temporary Republican leader indefinitely.
Sure, there’s sweet revenge against the enemies of Scalise, and sure, yes, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., is denied a win, but more importantly, appropriators on both sides of the aisle always win when no one’s taking control. Things like defense reauthorization, continuing resolutions, and omnibuses thrive on weak leadership. Fights against abortion, illegal immigration, and forever-funding for foreign wars, however? The fights the Republican base actually wants to see fought? They will never be priorities under a temporary leader.
First and foremost, a hollowed-out speakership benefits those politicians who want to keep the good times rolling for their donors, and it cripples those men and women who came to Washington to make a difference.
That’s why so many Republican and Democrat politicians alike want it to happen and are willing to damage the institution of the House to do it.
This fight over the next Republican House speaker isn’t creating the dysfunction, it’s exposing the dysfunction–and its loyal patrons.