Kevin McCarthy
Kevin McCarthy (R-California) looks over Lincoln Collection items from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division during a special display in the Speaker's office in the U.S. Capitol, July 17, 2023. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

The U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, which suc­ceed­ed the Con­gress of the Con­fed­er­a­tion of 1781–1789 fol­low­ing the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion of the Unit­ed States, is sup­posed to be the coun­try’s leg­isla­tive engine.

It wields the nation’s check­book, pos­sess­ing what’s known as the pow­er of the purse, and is respon­si­ble, along with the U.S. Sen­ate, for writ­ing budgets.

Keep­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment open to serve the peo­ple is arguably Con­gress’ most impor­tant respon­si­bil­i­ty, yet it is a duty that has been delib­er­ate­ly neglect­ed in recent years by Repub­li­cans when they have con­trolled the House.

Hav­ing learned noth­ing from the fail­ure of past hostage-tak­ing attempts, extreme ultra MAGA Repub­li­cans are once again putting the coun­try on the path to a gov­ern­ment shut­down. But this time, they are doing so with­out an agenda.

They don’t know what they want and lack a strat­e­gy for get­ting it, so, ridicu­lous­ly, Repub­li­cans can’t even agree on how to waste time anymore.

Polit­i­cal the­ater is get­ting sup­plant­ed by utter chaos and paral­y­sis. Rene­gade Repub­li­cans have recent­ly been vot­ing against rules pack­ages for bills, upend­ing the cham­ber’s week­ly sched­ules and demon­strat­ing that nobody’s in charge.

That’s why, despite the near­ness of Octo­ber 1st (the date when cur­rent appro­pri­a­tions laws are due to lapse), Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise, and the “lead­er­ship” of the House Repub­li­can con­fer­ence decid­ed not to keep the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in ses­sion. Instead, planned votes were scrapped, and mem­bers were encour­aged to go home ear­ly for the weekend.

Numer­i­cal­ly, Repub­li­cans hold a slim major­i­ty in the House, but since some of them seem to be more often in dis­agree­ment with their col­leagues than not, an observ­er could cred­i­bly argue that the House has no true major­i­ty right now.

While Kevin McCarthy holds the title of Speak­er, he lacks the pow­er that has his­tor­i­cal­ly been wield­ed by that office. The events of the past few weeks have demon­strat­ed that he does­n’t have suf­fi­cient loy­al­ty or sup­port need­ed to pass leg­is­la­tion or even pro­ce­dur­al motions in the House. Mean­while, the obstruc­tion­ist fac­tion that is open­ly defy­ing him isn’t win­ning over con­verts to their cause, so while they can frus­trate McCarthy’s schemes and pro­pos­als, they’re not present­ly get­ting any­where with their plot to engi­neer McCarthy’s removal as Speaker.

“McCarthy will be the weak­est Speak­er of the House in mem­o­ry,” I wrote back in Jan­u­ary. “He’ll wield lit­tle real pow­er and will like­ly lurch from cri­sis to cri­sis as he strug­gles to hold togeth­er a nar­row major­i­ty full of peo­ple who don’t like each oth­er and don’t trust each oth­er… a cau­cus that is already at the mer­cy of mil­i­tant extrem­ists who believe in destroy­ing gov­ern­ment rather than improv­ing it.”

That is indeed the dynam­ic we are see­ing now.

There are the­o­ret­i­cal­ly enough votes in the House to pre­vent a gov­ern­ment shut­down: Every Demo­c­ra­t­ic mem­ber would vote for a clean con­tin­u­ing res­o­lu­tion if one were put on the floor, so only a few Repub­li­can votes would be need­ed, and there’s a bloc of them who pro­fess to be a fierce­ly opposed to a shutdown.

But not even that group seems inter­est­ed in that obvi­ous and log­i­cal solution.

And so the clock ticks on with no action hav­ing been tak­en to avert one.

“The clowns are run­ning the cir­cus here,” Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jim McGov­ern of Mass­a­chu­setts, the top Demo­c­rat on the Rules Com­mit­tee, told The New York Times. “There are a lot of Repub­li­cans who are ratio­nal human beings who are hor­ri­fied by this, but don’t seem to have the guts to stand up to it and push back.”

Nebraska’s Don Bacon, who is among those McGov­ern was allud­ing to and is known for his can­dor, offered this assess­ment in that same New York Times arti­cle: “A lot of these folks are just hap­py to be in the minor­i­ty… They don’t want to vote for any­thing. If you are going to gov­ern, you’ve got to hold your nose at times. But some of these folks are purists.”

Purists? No, that’s too charitable.

Try snakes, agents of chaos, or wreckers.

For once, Carl Hulse’s edi­tors at The New York Times came up with a fit­ting head­line. The arti­cle those two quotes above are from begins with the words The Wreck­ing-Ball Cau­cus. That is def­i­nite­ly what these House Repub­li­cans are.

And while Bacon has open­ly com­plained about his ultra MAGA brethren plen­ty of times, includ­ing in Hulse’s arti­cle dat­ed today, Sep­tem­ber 23rd, he and his sup­pos­ed­ly more rea­son­able col­leagues have sim­ply not stood up against them.

It’s as if they are wait­ing for some exter­nal force to come to their rescue.

Per­haps in the next elec­tion, Repub­li­cans will be rel­e­gat­ed back to the minor­i­ty in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, and then it will not mat­ter so much that the ultra MAGA bunch are fanat­i­cal extrem­ists. In the mean­time, a man­u­fac­tured fis­cal cri­sis looms, a cri­sis that top House Repub­li­cans have known was com­ing for the dura­tion of this entire Con­gress. It is a cri­sis that they still have no plan to avert.

Bow­ing to the demands of their intra­cau­cus oppo­si­tion, McCarthy and Scalise have sched­uled votes for next week on a bunch of annu­al appro­pri­a­tions bills that they could have tak­en up weeks ago, but did not. (The House, as its cus­tom, took all of August off… time that could have at least been spent debat­ing legislation.)

“[I]f you look at the events of the last two weeks, things seem to be kind of com­ing my way,” gloat­ed McCarthy crit­ic Matt Gaetz in Thurs­day evening remarks to the press that were report­ed by The Asso­ci­at­ed Press. Gaetz vehe­ment­ly oppos­es the pas­sage of a con­tin­u­ing res­o­lu­tion to buy more time for Con­gress to avert a shut­down. He instead wants to take up those annu­al appro­pri­a­tions bills.

But doing so will actu­al­ly just waste more time and bring us clos­er to a shut­down, because the win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty to pass all of those appro­pri­a­tion bills and nego­ti­ate with the Sen­ate Demo­c­ra­t­ic major­i­ty before the cur­rent appro­pri­a­tions laws lapse closed back in the sum­mer. As senior Demo­c­rat Rosa DeLau­ro of Con­necti­cut explained: “We can in no way pass eleven bills in eight days.”

Well… make that four days, since the House was­n’t in ses­sion Fri­day, yes­ter­day, or today, and it won’t be tomor­row, either.

The AP arti­cle goes on as fol­lows: “DeLau­ro, a vet­er­an law­mak­er, esti­mat­ed it would take at least six weeks to pass the bills in both cham­bers of Con­gress, then nego­ti­ate them between the House and Sen­ate. She urged Repub­li­cans to embrace a con­tin­u­ing res­o­lu­tion to allow gov­ern­ment agen­cies to stay open.”

No con­tin­u­ing res­o­lu­tion, how­ev­er, has become the ral­ly­ing cry of ultra MAGA Repub­li­cans like Gaetz and Anna Pauli­na Luna, also of Flori­da. They aren’t going to flip. And Kevin McCarthy is so afraid of being tossed out as Speak­er that he won’t cross them. So if Bacon and his sup­pos­ed­ly more rea­son­able Repub­li­can col­leagues don’t want a shut­down to occur, they are going to need to stage their own upris­ing in the House this week and help Democ­rats pass a clean C.R.

That’s basi­cal­ly the only option left to avert a shut­down since the time to do any­thing else has already been squan­dered by House Republicans.

It is an option that the likes of Bacon prob­a­bly won’t pursue.

They know that if they did, they’d be invit­ing a pri­ma­ry chal­lenge in 2024 and would be tar­get­ed by Don­ald Trump’s appa­ra­tus. (Trump, as you might expect, is lazi­ly cheer­ing on the ultra MAGA extrem­ists and urg­ing them not to give an inch.)

A pro­longed gov­ern­ment shut­down thus seems to be in the offing.

In the very first Fed­er­al­ist essay, future Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Alexan­der Hamil­ton wrote: “It has been fre­quent­ly remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the peo­ple of this coun­try, by their con­duct and exam­ple, to decide the impor­tant ques­tion, whether soci­eties of men are real­ly capa­ble or not of estab­lish­ing good gov­ern­ment from reflec­tion and choice, or whether they are for­ev­er des­tined to depend for their polit­i­cal con­sti­tu­tions on acci­dent and force.”

Those words still ring true today.

It’s been a long, long time since con­gres­sion­al Repub­li­cans have wield­ed pow­er wise­ly. They are not inter­est­ed in gov­ern­ing, only seiz­ing pow­er and then inap­pro­pri­ate­ly using it, or fail­ing to use it. Yet thanks in part to ger­ry­man­der­ing, vot­er sup­pres­sion, and the influ­ence of big mon­ey, they have remained com­pet­i­tive in fed­er­al elec­tions. It’s a sor­ry state of affairs that is going to need to be addressed if we are to suc­ceed in keep­ing the repub­lic that we’ve inherited.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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