Dueling With Skunks — Charles P. Pierce.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve wondered whether allowing the U.S. House of Representatives to set its own rules is a good idea. Perhaps someone else should be appointed to run the House in a kind of receivership until the current Republican majority calms down, gets its meds adjusted, or is not the majority anymore. I truly don’t see any other way out that’s remotely plausible. The former president* seems content to allow Rep. Jim Jordan to act as his proxy in the Speaker’s chair. Current Majority whip Steve Scalise is simultaneously a proud right-wing belligerent — “David Duke without the baggage,” as he once called himself — and just enough of an Establishment figure to outrage the Angry Children’s Caucus that ran out former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. And the idea of any sort of power-sharing arrangement with the Democratic minority might as well be a proposal for an alliance with people from Venus.
(An aside: even though Fulton County (Ga.) Inmate No. P01135809 has announced his support for Jordan, it is the considered opinion of a number of House members that, if he were to announce he was available, it would be hard as hell to prevent it. P01135809 third in line for the presidency? The nightmare potential of that scenario is unfathomable.)
The basic cause of the current chaos was a change in the House’s procedural rules that was part of the intramural negotiations among the Republicans that groaned through 15 ballots before enough crackpots voted “Present” to allow McCarthy to become Speaker. There is in the House rules a provision called Rule IX. It allows for something called a “motion to vacate the chair.” This is a privileged motion, which means that, once proposed by a House member, the chamber has to take it up within two legislative days. In 2019, the rule was changed so that a privileged motion had to emerge from a party caucus. This change was put through a Democratic majority presided over by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It was the result of an exhausting period of chaos that saw the speakerships of Republicans John Boehner and Paul Ryan collapse, the former under the threat of a motion to vacate the chair from then-Rep. Mark Meadows and the Freedom Caucus.
Which brings us to last January, and the endless wrangling over McCarthy’s elevation to the speakership. The process played out in public, and it turned out to be a perfect preview of what happened a week ago. McCarthy kept cutting deals as the House reeled toward a confrontation with the debt ceiling. The now-familiar rump faction of conservatives was insisting on severe budget cuts as a ransom for increasing the debt ceiling. McCarthy kept surrendering concession after concession. As Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina told The New York Times in January:
Among that group’s demands were a push for steep cuts in federal spending and a balancing of the federal budget within a decade without raising taxes. “Is he willing to shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling?” Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who was one of 20 Republicans to initially vote against Mr. McCarthy on the House floor, recently told reporters. “That’s a non-negotiable item.” Mr. McCarthy appeared to agree to those demands, pledging to allow open debate on spending bills and to not raise the debt limit without major cuts — including efforts to reduce spending on so-called mandatory programs, which include Social Security and Medicare — in a deal that brought many holdouts, including Mr. Norman, into his camp.
n the middle of this exercise in extortion, the conservatives threw in a fail-safe device that they believed would guarantee that McCarthy lived up to the concessions they’d wrung out of him. They proposed, and he agreed to, a change in the House rules whereby a single member — say, oh, I don’t know, Matt Gaetz — could bring a privileged motion to vacate the chair. McCarthy agreed, securing the sword of Damocles over his own head. In retrospect, it’s hard to determine whether McCarthy severely overrated his own political skills, or whether he simply was so desperate for the speakership that he would have agreed to anything. Whatever, it was clear to everyone that McCarthy had signed his political death warrant by agreeing to this “minor” rule change that hardly anyone noticed at the time.
Apparently, McCarthy’s own fail-safe plan was that, in the event of a motion to vacate, he would somehow gather enough votes from the Democratic minority to survive. He may have believed this all the way through the passage of the Continuing Resolution that passed on September 30, primarily through Democratic votes, that bought the House three weeks to avoid a shutdown. But then, McCarthy went on Face the Nation 12 hours after the CR passed and blamed the Democrats for the entire mess. At a meeting of the Democratic caucus, they ran the video of McCarthy over and over again, outraging the minority to the point where it joined the effort to boot McCarthy. This is sort of what I meant about McCarthy’s severely overrating his own political skills.
When McCarthy agreed to the rule change that eventually doomed his speakership, most of the attention was being paid to the brinksmanship over the debt ceiling. But, when McCarthy agreed to the compromise CR, the question became not if, but when he would lose his gig. Gaetz may be intensely unpopular, but he only needed four other Republicans to swing the vote his way. I mean, hell, he didn’t even need Lauren Boebert or Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Article I, Section 5 states that,
“Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.”
Since the House was the institution of government elected most closely to the people, the Founders designed it as best they could to keep it from being stampeded by popular passions. As Mr. Madison wrote in Federalist 57,
The House of Representatives is so constituted as to support in the members an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people. Before the sentiments impressed on their minds by the mode of their elevation can be effaced by the exercise of power, they will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised; there forever to remain unless a faithful discharge of their trust shall have established their title to a renewal of it.
Gaetz may well face the judgment inherent in his “habitual recollection of [his] dependence on the people.” There is a movement in the House to expel him from the Republican caucus, if not from the body entirely. In the history of the House, only five members have been expelled. The first three were members who had fought for the Confederacy. The last time was the case of roguish Ohio representative James Trafficant. He was expelled after being convicted of a number of criminal offenses including bribery, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. Former aides said they had to kickback a portion of their salaries to him, and local business owners said he shook them down for payoffs. In July 2002, he was expelled from the House by a vote of 402-1. His lone supporter was former Rep. Gary Condit.
Gaetz, however, will face disciplinary action largely for being a jerk who embarrassed his party before the entire nation. It is an almost purely intramural squabble that the Democrats seem likely to stay out of until it’s time to vote on Gaetz’s punishment. What is clear is that, if the House is ever going to function as a legislative body again, that change in the rule regarding motions to vacate has to be reversed, and the previous rule adopted under Speaker Pelosi re-established. Otherwise, given the nature of the Republican caucus, anyone they elect to replace McCarthy is Speakering on borrowed time.
In 1910, progressives in the House rose in revolt against the ironclad Speakership of Joseph Cannon. Uncle Joe has cemented absolute control of the House by holding not only the Speakership but the chairmanship of the Rules Committee, the body that determines what bills will make it to the floor and what bills are not merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. Led by Rep. George Norris of Nebraska, young progressive Members of the House struck Cannon from that chairmanship. But, even with that, a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair failed. A Democrat from Texas, Albert Burlison, offered a motion to vacate the chair, but the Republican caucus held and Norris, exhausted from the around-the-clock, three-day fight to pry the Rules chairmanship away from Cannon, decided he didn’t have the stomach for another marathon brawl. But Uncle Joe left the Congress with a hard and fast rule that it ignored to its detriment over the past month.
“Sometimes in politics one must duel with skunks, but no one should be fool enough to allow skunks to choose the weapons.”
Doonesbury — Alternative facts.