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The Agonizingly Low Stakes of Today’s Vote for House Speaker
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The Agonizingly Low Stakes of Today’s Vote for House Speaker

It’s a bad job at a bad time for the party.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images.)

The reason there is so much drama around the question of the House speakership vote today is that it’s an extremely low-stakes contest, at least for everyone other than Rep. Kevin McCarthy.

The Republicans’ itty-bitty House majority will instantly obtain most of the possible advantages for the GOP—a blockade of any Democratic initiatives in the second half of President Biden’s term, control of congressional committees by their most-senior Republican members, and the power to set the House schedule—regardless of who wins today or in the days to come. Whether it is McCarthy or anyone else, the potential advantages for the party pretty much end there.

When your party controls the lower half of one branch of the government, you don’t do much of anything. And when you control that half of a branch by just five votes—a 1.03 percent advantage—you do your best just to hold on. But the speeches you hear today will suggest that there are serious consequences to whether McCarthy or someone else has the profoundly dubious privilege of wielding what will be a feather-light speaker’s gavel. These people are either full of it, or so stricken with Potomac fever that they’re hallucinating.

The arguments have and will center on who can best “stop the Biden-Harris agenda” or some other focus-group-whittled phrase. Voters already did that in November, insofar as Democrats hadn’t already done it to themselves in their own delusional infighting of the previous two years. The rest of the talking points will come down to “messaging,” i.e., talking points about talking points. Who gets to decide which politicized hearings to hold and who gets to go on TV with more-important-sounding titles are matters of little consequence. Voters will continue to correctly understand that these things should mostly be ignored.  

But I hear you saying, “What if one of the real lulus gets to be speaker of the House?” What if Rep. Andy Biggs—Publishers’ Clearing House winner, K-Pop beefer, staunch foe of Swedish NATO membership, and author of The Doctrine of Liberty: Insights From the Book of Mormon—becomes third in line for the presidency and gets to go sit in the photo-ops they convene when pretending to have meetings about fiscal cliffs and whatnot?

If by some freak accident it did happen, it probably wouldn’t matter much in the administration of government. A kooky speaker with a barely there majority and the Senate and White House in the hands of the other party would be easy enough to maneuver around until he was ultimately ousted by his own party. Which brings us to the second point: It won’t happen.

The mantra from McCarthy and his team has been “only Kevin,” which is certainly true, but only in answer to the right question: Which member of leadership is willing to humiliate himself in a series of Fear Factor-like challenges to win the votes of people who openly despise him in order to get a truly terrible job? Only Kevin, indeed. 

But, if McCarthy isn’t able to get it done on the first ballot, it won’t be a mega-MAGA radical who wins. The next in line would be Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and then Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York. If McCarthy is thwarted, the next frontrunner will get there in minutes, not over the course of four agonizing years. That makes the job more appealing and the bargaining easier. Either Scalise or Stefanik could get the majority of the caucus behind them, and little advantage to the Biggs five for staying united as Democrats celebrated Republican dysfunction so potent that it triggered only the second multi-ballot speaker election since the Civil War. The holdouts would have their scalp and would happily declare victory.

If you doubt it, just think of this: The leaders of the various caucuses of the Republican Conference of the U.S. House of Representatives have a weekly meeting they refer to as the “Five Families,” an homage to the Profaci, Mangano, Luciano, Maranzano, and Gagliano organized crime families of New York who tried to share control of the city’s criminal underworld from the 1930s until the 1980s. Aside from the whole brutal-mobster part of it, this is such an odd thing to say because they were frequently engaged in murderous wars with each other. But most of all, it tells us that these are, again, not serious people with useful understandings of how legislative power is exercised. 

McCarthy’s new enforcer, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, loves the term. But while she may imagine that the Freedom Caucus is powerful like a mafia don, that’s not what’s happening here.

The Freedom Caucus is made up of MAGA hucksters like Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado along with longtime members who date back to the caucus’ Tea Party origins, like Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, as well as serious radicals from the Doug Mastraiano-wing of the GOP, like the group’s new chairman, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania. They are in many ways the reactionary heirs of the John Birchers of previous generations: cranky, confrontational, and often paranoid. Not surprisingly, the group is secretive in its operations, factious among itself, and bombastic in its pronouncements, but it seems that there are probably at least 40 members. It seems equally clear that they cannot function in favor of anything other than chaos.

What about the second “family,” the Republican Study Committee? These are the grandchildren of the Gingrich Revolution, but without the real rebellion of their forebears. With about 160 members, the RSC is about as mainstream as it gets in the GOP: Too big to be decisive and too diverse to be dangerous. The résumé polishers who fill out the ranks tend to be Tracy Flicks these days. The new chairman, Rep. Kevin Hearn, a successful McDonald’s franchisee from Tulsa, has been in Congress for only four years. Not exactly Lucky Luciano.

Two of the other “families,” the Republican Main Street Caucus, led by Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, and the Republican Governance Group, led by Rep. Dave Joyce of Ohio, together comprise maybe 70 or so members with lots of overlap between them. These are the traditional Chamber of Commerce kind of pro-business Republicans, many from swing suburban districts who are interested in showing legislative success. The fifth “family” is the Republican side of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, led by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. Lots of overlap here, too, with members like Rep. David Valadao on the rolls of all three of the more moderate groups. 

These men aren’t bosses, and a weekly gum-suck in the leadership offices is not a summit between powerful factions. It’s a calendar filler and a public-facing effort to show solidarity, not a place for meaningful negotiations. People who don’t understand those things aren’t likely to understand the real consequences of today’s vote and the actual situation of the Republican Party, circa 2023. 

If the stakes were higher—if there was a big House majority and a Republican Senate and/or White House—we would be seeing a much different fight for the speakership. That would really be a job worth having. Not only would the kook caucus be less powerful in a big majority and therefore less able to make extortionate demands, the speaker could actually set an agenda and make a mark. For the next House speaker, the marks will mostly be left on them. It’s a bad job at a bad time for the party—the white elephant prize, if you’ll excuse me.

Seldom has Samuel Johnson’s line—“small things make mean men proud, and vanity catches small occasions”—fit better.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.