Paralyzed House worsens outlook for chaos in era of divided government: ANALYSIS

Warnings of real-world impact have started to reverberate.

January 5, 2023, 9:29 PM

The cinematic treatment of this week in the House, if it comes, will surely improve upon the original.

Eleven votes and counting for speaker failed to produce a result, or even anything all that interesting. There were few compelling plot twists but extensive borrowing from "Groundhog Day," "Veep," "House of Cards" and "Seinfeld"-worthy fights about nothing -- even periodic cameos by a congressman-elect seemingly right out of "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

But however the Republicans' fight for the speakership ultimately ends, the intraparty trench warfare will not impact solely the GOP or the new Congress.

The stalemate is more a symptom than a cause inside a party where, in recent years, personalities have held stronger magnetism than policy. On top of that, the machinations the extended standoff has forced are more likely to worsen the outlook for chaos in this new era of divided government, particularly once the substantive work of Congress can finally begin.

Freshman Rep.-elect John James, R-Mich., warned on the House floor during the speaker votes that Republicans were already failing on two counts -- both in terms of working governance and of not embarrassing the people who sent them to Washington.

"We're stuck in a malaise, at an impasse. And we will stay here," he said. "We will not be able to fight the real conservative fights until we find a way to come together and fight that mission together."

James' appeal for his colleagues to get behind Republican leader Kevin McCarthy for speaker failed to change a single vote through a third slog of a day on Thursday. The fight has become deeply personal, as evidenced by the stubborn math: McCarthy can lose only four members of his own conference and still become speaker, though he has lost 20 or more on each successive tally.

Rep. John James, nominates Rep. Kevin McCarthy, in the House chamber as representatives meet for the third day to elect a Speaker at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 5, 2023.
Alex Brandon/AP

Warnings of real-world impact have started to reverberate. House members are unable to introduce bills, begin oversight inquiries or, they say, even address some constituent concerns until they are sworn in, which can't happen until there's a House speaker.

The presumptive incoming chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Intelligence committees released a joint statement decrying the delays. Among other issues, they and their staffs can't receive security clearances to be briefed on national-security matters until their panels are constituted.

"We cannot let personal politics place the safety and security of the United States at risk," the three chairmen-in-waiting said.

Personal politics have forced McCarthy loyalists to make waves of concessions that will likely the make the job of any GOP speaker harder. Behind arcane arguments about such things as "legislative germaneness" and a "motion to vacate" are real pending rules changes that could tie up the House floor indefinitely -- and limit the latitude any speaker has to make unpopular decisions.

That could matter deeply in the case of a true crisis, where speed of action and a House speaker's input could be critical. It will also almost certainly matter when it comes to basic matters of funding the federal government and making good on debts already incurred, which forces Congress to periodically raise the nation's borrowing limit.

Legislation in those areas almost always require a modicum of bipartisanship -- particularly so long as the House is controlled by a different party than the Senate and the White House, as it is now. That means cutting deals that many in a speaker's own party may not agree with, without having to worry about whether that risks a no-confidence vote that could cost the gavel.

The chair of the Speaker of the House sits empty for a third straight day as members of the House gather for another expected round of voting for a new Speaker on the third day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 5, 2023.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Worryingly for the GOP, none of the usual major forces have been able to bring order to the chaos. Pressure campaigns by Fox News hosts and even former President Donald Trump himself haven't changed minds, and efforts by McCarthy lieutenants to squeeze and shame holdouts have failed to do much of anything.

Adding to the sense of drift is the fact that McCarthy's critics haven't offered a viable alternative who actually wants the job, much less a way for someone to do the job that's at stake. The anti-McCarthy members have shifted and sometimes split their support; one early vote went to a recently retired member of Congress, and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., started voting for former President Donald Trump for speaker on Thursday.

One prominent McCarthy backer, Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said he worried about concessions that reward individual members of Congress for intransigence that has brought televised embarrassment to the party.

"What precedent are you setting?" Gallagher told ABC News' Rachel Scott. "You risk opening a Pandora's box."

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks to Rep.-elect Andy Ogles inside the House Chamber during voting for a new Speaker on the third day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 5, 2023.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

It's not a fair fight in the sense that McCarthy likely needs 218 votes, while blocking him takes the commitment of just five Republicans holding out. That imbalance creates the current conundrum – exacerbated by the suspicion, as voiced by some of their fellow Republicans, that McCarthy's opponents are more interested in their egos and follower counts than legislative achievements.

Democrats have watched the other side of the aisle with amused detachment and, in at least one case tweeted out by a House member, literal popcorn. But the Biden agenda and basic governance are both at risk if half of the legislative branch is not operational.

The 118th Congress will, at some point, choose a speaker. That's not the same as guaranteeing that it will be able to function in any meaningful sense. Whether comedy, drama or farce, the ending is far from being scripted.

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