January 8, 2023

GOP Speaker Imbroglio: Inmates Running the Asylum.

by Hal Gershowitz

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No one should kid themselves that our legislative contretemps is over with the election of Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the US House of Representatives. The mischief has just begun. Kevin McCarthy has made a Mephistophelian bargain with oddball Republicans who have no interest in orderly governance but only an assurance that they will have mischievous power to gum up the works when it suits them, which they will surely do. Kevin McCarthy has become the dog that caught the car.

The orderly conduct of the nation’s business requires a legislative branch willing to do business. That is fundamental. The Constitution confers upon the House of Representatives the responsibility for initiating legislation that provides the money for the government to function, prioritize its initiatives, and fund its financial obligations.

That doesn’t mean our representatives have to be spendthrifts who fund every initiative the executive branch or progressive activists embrace. It is, however, the role of Congress to sort out those executive branch budget requests that require funding, along with the pork barrel requests that originate in Congress. Once that “sorting out” is done, it is up to Congress to responsibly fund them consistent with an orderly legislative process determining the extent to which priorities will be funded.

What we have experienced in this week’s selection (or temporary lack of selection) of a Speaker of the House has not been an honest process to find the right candidate to lead the House. It has been an absurd kabuki dance, a spectacle for show, with no objective other than to burnish the bona fides of inauthentic politicians. They are in Congress essentially to raise money from those of their respective constituencies who are foolish enough to mistake bravado for boldness. The battle over the speakership, or more succinctly, the battle over McCarthy, has not been an effort to bolster conservative principles but rather to bolster individual political ambition.

Mick Mulvaney, the former Freedom Caucus founder and acting Trump chief-of-staff summed up the spectacle pretty well, “I don’t understand it. It seems like it’s so personal.” Mulvaney described the foolishness for what it was and is, “you can raise a lot more money off of being outrageous. I think that’s what it is. I think a lot of these guys like to be famous, and they can raise a lot more money by doing it and run for higher office.”

Former Congresswoman Jamie Herrera Butler R-WA.) agreed. “this was their big chance to make headlines, put out tweets, and build their social media narrative. They’re probably not going to get much more of that moving forward, so they’re going to take it for all it’s worth,” she said.

Former Republican, now independent commentator, David French, described the renegade Republicans in the House, including Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. as having built their entire brands around trolling, rage, and rebellion.

So, what was this really all about? It certainly wasn’t about serious people coming to Washington to do serious business for the country. These congresspersons, these representatives of the people, occupy time and space in the capital and draw $174,000 a year in taxpayer-provided salary plus other benefits. But here’s the thing. According to the Congressional Research Service, a House member, on average, serves 8.9 years, and the average Senator serves 11 years. For some, probably those hogging facetime during the speaker spectacle, that means making a name for themselves, getting face time on television, creating an aura of leadership, puffing up their image of faux importance so that they have a shot of a well-compensated life after Congress.

Think about it. What are most of these oratory bomb throwers, the Gaetz’s, the Greene’s, the Gosars, and so many like them really known for? It’s their antics. They see Congress as a stage on which they can play and become bantam celebrities developing swooning followings while accomplishing little to nothing beneficial for their constituents, nor, indeed, for the country.

Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) referred to the arguments the obstructionists made as “stupid platitudes” that some consultant told them to say on the campaign trail.” Representative Don Bacon (R-Neb.) called the speaker obstructionists, “the chaos caucus, and the “Taliban 20.”

The McCarthy speaker spectacle is, however, instructive. There are many in Congress whose instincts and priorities do not represent winning points of view. They are obstructionists, dissenters, and antagonists who rarely extoll what they are for because what they are for doesn’t resonate with a large, diverse country with growing needs and, often, diminishing opportunities. So, many do not even look for initiatives to support but instead focus on proposals to oppose. It is a vexing problem because it feeds friction and negativity. It makes Washington, in the eyes of many, a place to revile. They delight in calling Washington a swamp.

Republican writer par excellence Peggy Noonan summed up the situation eloquently in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. “…they think throwing snares and making Congress ungovernable is progress. It isn’t progress but nihilism, and it is connected to the endless loop of performance art that has taken over our politics. Once, you had to be a legislator and pass bills. Now you just have to play a legislator on media. You do TV hits, enact indignation, and show you’re the kind of tough person who gets things done. You don’t have to do anything. If that is your business model—and these people are in business and fundraising off this week’s spectacle, it isn’t bad for you if Republican leadership flounders (they’re squishes anyway) or the Democrats take over (you get to be the fiery opposition). They tell themselves they are speaking truth to power, but real conservatism involves an ability to see and respect reality and to move constructively with it, nudging it in desirable directions. Many of them are stupid and highly emotional, especially the men. Most have no historical depth. If they have little respect for institutions, it’s because they have no idea how institutions help us live as a nation, and they’ve never helped build one.”

Kevin McCarthy, in my opinion, has not been impressive as a Republican leader. His kowtowing to former President Trump, even after acknowledging his considerable responsibility for the failed coup attempt two years ago, is one of those leadership failures that historians will write about for years to come. Nonetheless, he was almost a sympathetic character in last week’s pathetic Republican Kabuki theater.

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