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.