Unable to govern and unwilling to be governed, the deepest dysfunctions of the House Republican conference are rising to the surface, as the party struggles to choose a new speaker.
Rep. John Boehner’s resignation as House speaker was the first sign of just how bad things have gotten among House Republicans. Having survived many threats and attempts to eject him from the speaker’s chair, and facing a slow-moving coup from tea-party hardliners, Boehner decided he’d rather work on his golf swing.
Next, on CBS’s Face The Nation, Boehner blasted the GOP’s hard-liners as “false prophets,” who “whip people into a frenzy” over “things that they know — they know! — are never gonna happen,” like shutting down the government or defunding Obamacare.
Then Boehner’s heir apparent, Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) let slip the true nature of the GOP’s Benghazi obsession: It was all about discrediting Hillary Clinton.
McCarthy’s accidental honesty about the House GOP’s Benghazi investigation drew fire from his fellow Republicans, and threw the race for House speaker into turmoil. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) took a swipe at McCarthy during an interview on MSNBC. Chaffetz told Joe Scarborough that McCarthy was a “good man” but said voters wanted a “fresh face” in the speaker’s office, and added that McCarthy was just “shy of 218” — the number of votes needed to become speaker.
McCarthy’s gaffe also proved a gift to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, which returned the favor by featuring McCarthy in Clinton’s latest television spot.
As speaker-in-waiting, McCarthy may not be quite ready for prime time, but he’s already a star.
The most recent sign that the Republican revolution is flailing is Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s (R-Utah) own bid for speaker. As we noted earlier, the race for speaker and other leadership spots quickly grew crowded and crazy after Boehner called it quits.
● Florida congressman and Freedom Caucus stalwart Rep. Daniel Webster threw his hat into the ring.
● House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Tom Price (R-Georgia) became a leading candidate for majority leader, as a means of placating Freedom Caucus right-wingers, who threatened to deny McCarthy the 218 votes he needs to become speaker, despite having no viable candidates themselves.
● House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) also announced that he would run for majority leader. Scalise, who was most recently in the news for a 2002 speech to David Duke’s anti-Semitic, white-supremacist organization, now says he has the votes to win. So, House Republicans could end up with a majority leader who once touted himself as “David Duke without the baggage.”
Chaffetz’s announcement adds even more craziness to the House speaker race, if that’s possible. You might remember Chaffetz from his performance at the House Oversight Committee’s Planned Parenthood hearing, where he interrupted the organization’s president Cecile Richards 19 times in five minutes, implied that Richards was overpaid, and got called out for trying to use a deceptive chart.
That’s not Chaffetz’s only claim to fame.
● In response to President Obama’s suggestion to reform the tax code to close the loophole that let’s the wealthy avoid taxes on inherited wealth, Chaffetz declared that taxing inheritance is “one of the most immoral things you can do.”
● In January, Chaffetz claimed that twice-failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney had been “vindicated”, and that “most people understand Mitt Romney was right.”
● Last summer, Chaffetz assured us that Romney “actually is gonna run for president” in 2016 — and win.
● Last October, Chaffetz slammed the Obama administration’s Ebola response. “Why not have the surgeon general head this up?” Chaffetz asked, seemingly unaware that Senate Republicans were the reason we didn’t have a surgeon general during the Ebola crisis.
Electing a new speaker is usually an orderly, relatively bloodless exchange of power, and it was supposed to be over by the end of this week. John Boehner initially scheduled the vote for October 8. Then Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) and Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) circulated a letter calling for the majority leader and majority whip elections to be postponed, in order to give the unrest in the Republican conference time to settle. The delay would also give the House GOP’s right-wing contingent more time to find a candidate to run against Scalise and Price.
Now, Boehner has postponed the floor vote for House speaker until October 29, just one day before he makes his getaway. Instead, the secret ballot within the Republican conference will go forward on October 8, while the full House will elect a new speaker on October 29. The date for other leadership elections will be set by the new speaker.
Apparently, there’s concern that McCarthy might have the votes to win the internal GOP conference vote, but members of the Freedom Caucus could act as spoilers by withholding support during the House floor vote — despite having no viable candidates of their own. Despite claiming McCarthy doesn’t have the votes to win a House floor vote, Chaffetz admitted that he doesn’t have enough votes either, but hoped to round them up by Thursday, and even claimed to have flipped a few McCarthy supporters. In an interview with ABC News, Chaffetz acknowledged, “I’m probably going to lose, but I’m okay with that.” Rep. Daniel Webster remains in the race, but also remains a long shot.
What Republicans need is a speaker who can corral the hard-liners and unite the party around a remotely coherent agenda. They’re unlikely to find one among the current crop of leadership candidates, and would be disinclined to support such a candidate if one arose. He is no moderate, but pro-amnesty McCarthy is not conservative enough for GOP radicals seeking further gains after finally ousting John Boehner. Thus the Freedom Caucus still threatens to throw the House vote, while right-wingers like Chaffetz and Webster lack the votes to win. As the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal notes, the 40-odd Freedom Caucus members “effectively have veto power over the speaker election,” but can’t settle on a viable, sufficiently conservative candidate from among their own.
Thanks to a constitutional loophole, the speaker of the House doesn’t have to be a member of the House. So, the search for a new speaker has even extended beyond current House membership.
● Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) used a tweetstorm to nominate American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks as the next speaker.
● Conservative columnist Peter Roff recommended former House speaker Newt Gingrich to return to his former post.
The hard-liners aren’t looking so much for a speaker who can lead them, so much as one who will be led by them. Some are using Boehner’s departure as an opportunity to push for rule changes that would give them a greater say in setting the House agenda, and limit the power of the next speaker.
As speaker, Boehner struggled with an influential contingent of hard-line conservatives who didn’t come to Washington to govern, but to disrupt governance, by resorting to extortion to force an agenda that failed to win public support. As a result, according to Gallup’s annual Governance poll, 79 percent of Americans see Congress “out of touch with average Americans,” and 48 percent even see their own member of Congress as out of touch.
House Republicans will eventually elect a speaker. But the public spectacle of chaotic struggle to choose the next speaker shows, as The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza put it, that House Republicans are great at agitation but lousy at organization. It’s a sign of deeper dysfunction that’s simmered barely below the surface since the tea party helped Republicans recapture the House majority in 2010 and Boehner tried with varying degrees of success to hold it in check.