Do the Republicans really want to be in the majority?

The fight over whether Kevin McCarthy becomes the next speaker of the House continues, and after three failed votes yesterday, his prospects don’t look great. 

The notion that 19 or 20 Republicans could force this protracted battle in order to get McCarthy’s longtime ally and right-hand man, Steve Scalise, into the speaker’s chair feels like we’re witnessing what Shakespeare called “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” 

But it does raise the question of whether certain House Republicans prefer the comfort of being in the minority and raging impotently, rather than facing the hard work and difficult compromises that are a requirement of operating in a governing majority.

I’m less interested in whether Kevin McCarthy becomes the next speaker of the House than in what the current fight says about the Republican Party as 2023 dawns.

Until the House of Representatives gets a speaker, almost nothing can be done in the chamber. Until a speaker is elected, the rest of the House members-elect cannot be sworn in, because their oath of office is administered by the speaker. (I’m no fan of Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, but credit her for a good line: “Here we are being sworn at instead of being sworn in.”) No one can be assigned to any committee. No rules can be adopted and no legislation or resolutions can be formally acted upon. One branch of government is stuck in neutral.

At first glance, many Republicans like the idea of the legislative branch of government being frozen in place.

But the doors of legislative action swing both ways.

McCarthy had big plans for a big start. The metal detectors outside the House chamber are gone, but the meaty stuff is on hold: Legislation to rescind the permanent appropriation for 87,000 new Internal Revenue Service employees, reducing the amount of red tape for domestic energy production, more funding for border-security enforcement, oversight hearings on everything from the lab-leak theory to Hunter Biden to the promotion of politically correct initiatives in the U.S. military — you name it.

If someone wants to argue that those legislative proposals will either die or get significantly watered down in the Senate and/or face a Biden veto, that’s fair. But a key part of working in a divided government is attempting to maximize the pressure on the opposition party. If popular House proposals on IRS funding, border security, domestic energy, and the rest end up collecting dust in the Senate, Americans may well start asking, “Why won’t Chuck Schumer do anything?” or “This is a good idea. Why did Biden veto this?” You can’t get any leverage over the other guys if you can’t get your act together to pass any legislation.

Republicans worked hard to win control of the House, but at least for now, they can’t do anything with it. And keep in mind, the clock is ticking. Many of the dynamics in place for a new presidency are in place for a new House majority — your popularity, momentum, political capital, and leverage are at their maximum at the start. At some point in the coming months, the House will have to turn its attention to the debt ceiling, which is currently set at $31.4 trillion; the current public debt is knocking at the door of that limit. Debt-limit negotiations are going to eat up a lot of time, energy, and attention in the new House. The year ahead is going to have its share of unexpected events — natural disasters, some foreign-policy crisis, a potential recession. In many cases, if a particular idea or policy proposal doesn’t get enacted early, it may well not get enacted at all.

To some Republicans, the House’s inability to move after the starting gun fires is embarrassing. But clearly, to at least 20 Republicans, being stuck in neutral is fine. A big question to every House Republican is, “You worked hard to get a majority. Now that you’ve got one, what do you want to do with it?” Apparently, some of them can honestly answer, “Nothing.”

The bitterness and stubbornness in the current GOP House leadership fight would be easier to understand if members were choosing between McCarthy and a figure who was dramatically ideologically and personally different — say, Andy Biggs of Arizona. But House Republicans already had that battle late last year. McCarthy won, 188 to 31. That’s a roughly 85 percent to 15 percent split.

Yesterday, 19 Republicans voted for Jim Jordan on the second vote, and then 20 Republicans did it on the third vote. Jordan didn’t vote for himself. He’s slated to be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and he — at least publicly — seems pretty happy with that plum assignment. Grilling Biden administration witnesses might be what Jordan is best at! The anti-McCarthy crowd is pushing for the election of a guy who doesn’t want the job! (Again, at least publicly.) It’s a similar story with the rumor of Steve Scalise as the consensus choice. Scalise wants to be House majority leader, and he’s supporting McCarthy, too. Scalise was the one who nominated McCarthy yesterday! Why is the anti-McCarthy crowd vehemently opposed to McCarthy, but fine with McCarthy’s right-hand man?

As I asked yesterday, what’s the point of this fight?

If twelve House Republicans voted “present,” New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries could be elected speaker. That scenario is unlikely, but there was a report yesterday that “Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Scott Perry (R-PA) told Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) that they don’t mind if the speaker vote goes to plurality and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) is elected because they will fight him”

In other words, at least a handful of House Republicans are saying they’re fine with a Democratic speaker and Democrats effectively controlling the House, despite the outcome of the 2022 midterm elections. Note that these are exactly the kinds of Republicans who call each other “RINO,” contend that other Republicans aren’t tough enough or smart enough, and simply believe that others aren’t willing to do what it takes to win.

Right now, in the House, the GOP is a nominal or technical majority party with a large faction which has no interest in acting like a majority. They may well be happier being in the minority.

Shortly before the end of the year, the Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh offered a sharp observation about populists: They’re so used to being outsiders and railing against the system that they’re uncomfortable running the system — and may well not want to be in a position of managing a branch of government:

Drama, more than governmental incompetence, is what stops populists holding power for long. It wasn’t Trump who invaded Iraq. It wasn’t Johnson who made a farce of Britain in the financial markets a few months ago. Had each man been more circumspect in style, but no different in their administrative performance, he might be in office yet. But that drama is innate to populism. It can’t be fixed. Bored out of its mind by the technical act of governing, this is a movement that lives on spectacle.

Put another way, fascism is about winning and doing. Populism is about losing and cocking a snook at the winners. As a movement, it is at its happiest as a large minority of the electorate: enough to sustain its own media ecosystem, provide earning opportunities for grifters and perhaps sway the official policy of the day.

(Yes, “cocking a snook” is a very British phrase; substitute “thumbing your nose” as needed.)

Every now and then, the hashtag “#DemsInDisarray” spreads on Twitter, and oftentimes it is fair. But a certain amount of internal friction and squabbling is more or less baked into the cake of being a majority party. You’ve got more members and more factions, all pushing for their priorities to be atop the to-do list. It’s not that, say, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Abigail Spanberger agree on everything. It’s just that they’re rarely willing to let those differences become such an issue that the party can’t get things done. Both the progressives and centrists — eh, let’s face it, hardline progressives and slightly less hardline progressives — believe they have a vested interest in a functioning legislative majority. Based on what we’re seeing on Capitol Hill this week, a small but pivotal number of House Republicans just don’t feel any obligation to help their party get things done.

Why are Democrats more frequently in the majority in legislative chambers? Well, it probably helps that all their members want to be in the majority.

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