Who’s afraid of a little actual voting in Congress?

The House of Representatives is in the process of making the sort of history one doesn’t really want to make as the selection of Speaker moves to at least the 12th ballot, suggesting that the Republican party is fractured, which should not be much of a surprise after the midterm elections.

This week, the political world was in a tizzy over the vote for the new Speaker of the House of Representatives.  A group of approximately 20 recalcitrant Republicans refused to support would-be speaker Kevin McCarthy, prompting the apparently disgusting and embarrassing spectacle of Representatives actually having to do their jobs and earn their positions in what once was an august body.  For all the talk about democracy being under threat in recent years, one would think these Republicans, mostly members of the Freedom Caucus, were conducting the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France.  None other than President Joe Biden himself described it as an embarrassment and said that he is concerned about the ability of Congress to function, which one presumes means passing the bills he prefers, more on that shortly.  He is concerned “for two reasons. One, it’s embarrassing for the country. And I mean literally, I’m not making a partisan — that’s the reality that to be able to have a Congress that can’t function is just embarrassing. We’re the greatest country in the world, how can that be? And we’ve had a lot of trouble with the attacks on our institutions already. And, it’s just — that’s what worries me more than anything else.”  Unfortunately, no reporter bothered to ask him exactly what the horror of Congress taking a few days to decide who should wield one of the most powerful perches in the country truly is, nor did anyone consider that what we have seen so far is mild by the standards of countries that use a parliamentary system, where it can take weeks to build a governing coalition.  Bonus question:  Was Congress functioning last month when they jammed through a 4,000 plus page spending bill released in the dark of night and broke every normal procedure known to humankind?  Is that the kind of functioning he’s looking for?

Even normally reasonable people like Michael Goodwin of The New York Post called for an end to the “madness.”  “This is madness. The reasons for opposing McCarthy seem either vague or more personal than substantive, especially after he made so many concessions to win their votes. But it was never enough because their opposition is, at this late stage, fundamentally incoherent. Most importantly, a shootout in a lifeboat is not a persuasive argument that the party is ready to govern.”  I respect Mr. Goodwin very much and find him to be an excellent and fair minded commentator, but wondering if the current Republican party is ready to govern strikes me as akin to asking whether your kindergartner is ready to race in the 24 Hours of LeMans.  The party has been at war with itself since the arrival of Donald Trump.  He would do better to ask Mitch McConnell if he is ready to govern after sabotaging our own Senate candidates in the midterms.  Turnabout, as they say, is fair play, but at least Mr. Goodwin makes a coherent point.  We should want our so-called leaders to govern, even if they have shown themselves less than capable, more on that in a moment as well.  Politico’s Jeff Greenfield takes a different tack, seeing the actual process of voting in Congress in public as anti-democratic.  He believes that “GOP hostage takers have embraced the anti-democratic vulnerabilities in our political system.”  After claiming to be “horrified by the prospect of this chaos bringing down the world’s financial structure this fall when the debt ceiling comes up for a vote,” he saw something else, “another example of how in Washington a minority — sometimes a very small one — can frustrate the will of a majority. Even if we understand that our system was purposely designed with anti-majoritarian rules and principles, it’s remarkable how often the few can overwhelm the many, to disastrous effect.”  The problem, you see, is not that Representative McCarthy has failed to secure all of the votes needed to win the Speakership.  It’s that “Members who constitute less than 5 percent of the chamber, and less than 10 percent of the Republican caucus, brought the House to a standstill.”  It never seems to occur to Mr. Greenfield that these members have rights as Representatives of their district, and refusing to vote for Representative McCarthy for whatever reason is one of them, or, dare I say it, that Representative McCarthy could withdraw from consideration to allow another member to emerge.  By what right does he claim the Speaker’s gavel when he can’t get the support of all of his members?

As ever, establishment-oriented prognosticators on both sides of the political aisle choose to take an extremely limited view of democracy, one which generally means whatever outcome they prefer.  Democracy cannot exist without rights and processes.  Rights prevent a majority of one in a country of hundreds of millions from voting to confiscate everything they want from the minority, forcing them to their will.  Members of Congress have the right to vote for whoever they want for Speaker, even someone that is not in Congress, for whatever reason they want.  They are not beholden to Congress or political party, but their own voters.  If the voters feel the recalcitrant members are not representing their interests, they can express their displeasure in the next election.  Otherwise, their ability to vote as they see fit based on their preferences and their conscience is the very definition of democracy which does not require anyone to act.  Sometimes not acting and holding things up is a superior course of action depending on your point of view.  Processes ensure votes occur according to an agreed upon set of rules.  In this case, the election of the Speaker requires a majority of the entire House rather than a mere plurality.  One can debate whether or not that is the appropriate standard, but the majority rule was known well in advance by all comers, and the 20 members objecting to Representative McCarthy all made their objections known in advance, stating in public that they would not vote for him.  In other words, everyone – including Representative McCarthy himself, the entire House of Representatives, both Democrats and Republicans, and the mainstream media – knew this impasse was not resolved before the voting began.  In fact, the Democrats could resolve the impasse anytime they wanted to by voting present and lowering the majority threshold.  This is not to suggest I would recommend this course of action were I a Democrat.  There is value in making your opposition look bad, and there is no doubt this is not a good look, however exaggerated the critiques may be.  I would offer the same advice Teddy Roosevelt gave his fellow Republicans when a dispute among Democrats over the Speaker of the New York State Legislature took six weeks to resolve.  “This is purely a struggle between themselves, and it should be allowed to continue as long as they please.  We have no interest in helping one section against the other; combined they have the majority and let them make all they can out of it!”

At the same time, if the goal is strictly good governance as many have been claiming, isn’t that the right thing for Democrats to do, help govern?  Sadly, the good governance canard is essentially the same as the peons to democracy.  It means doing whatever the establishment on both sides wants done, whatever the cost.  Andrew Gawthorpe, writing for The Guardian, believes this “fiasco shows that Republicans are unable to govern” and these “games will not end well for the country” because the “stakes are huge.”  The Freedom Caucus, you see, came to “Washington not to construct but to destruct, and taking down McCarthy is just the beginning.”  The problem, as he sees it, “America needs a functioning House of Representatives with a responsible speaker in order to discharge basic functions like funding the government and increasing the debt limit.”  In other words, the goal of governance is always to spend more as smoothly and with as little friction as possible.  Those who stand in the way are always in the wrong, and we are never supposed to question why good governance is passing massive spending bills that violate existing laws and procedures in the middle of the night right before the holiday, or why it is good governance to come up with novel, never before seen ways to use the reconciliation process to pass vast new government programs rather than budgets, or even why it is good governance to use executive orders to achieve your policy goals rather than actual follow procedures, all as Joe Biden and the Democrats have done for two years now.  This, we are to assume, is the pinnacle of good governance given the plaudits from the media, even though time and again the principles and procedures of our government were disregarded in naked power grabs.  Perhaps even worse, we are not so supposed to ask whether or not the outcome of all this good governance is actually good for the American people rather than the government itself.  Many experts, including former Obama Administration officials, believe the good governance in passing a massive coronavirus relief bill using the reconciliation  process directly led directly to massive inflation.  Raising the debt ceiling and funding bills are especially ironic, given we have had deficits running in the trillions of dollars since the pandemic, the debt is now over $32 trillion, and the latest spending bill increased it further by violating the PAY-GO Act.  Wouldn’t good governance truly be asking how much longer this can go on and attempting to bring some sanity back to the process?  Further, even when the government is obviously broken and very far from good, like for example a border that saw some 5,000,000 crossings over the past two years, where are these same people not calling for it to be fixed on a daily basis?  They are nowhere to be found because that is not what they mean by good governance.  They mean big spending.

Ultimately, I have little doubt the Speaker of the House will be decided soon and the entire episode will be swiftly forgotten.  The American people do not care whether or not Congress was unable to function for a few days in the first week of January.  This affects literally no one.  This does not mean it is unimportant:  We can see the true colors and true meaning of the political class when they declare that voting in public is anti-democratic and passing spending bills is the heart and soul of good government.  This is who these people are and why I have sympathy for the Freedom Caucus preventing an easy nomination for Speaker.  They are far more my ideological allies than the establishment.  This does not mean I believe their motivations are pure or they have acted perfectly.  It seems to me that they could have been much clearer in their demands before the vote and better managed the fall out.  It is also a fair question as to whether embarrassing a new Speaker is a good idea in general, but the simple fact is that both the government and the Republican party are broken.  The Republican Party in particular has presided over a failed midterm election, and yet somehow the very same leadership is supposed to continue despite their inability to produce a red wave.  An honest assessment of the situation would question whether Representative McCarthy truly deserves the job, as it would have for Senate Minority Leaders, who presided over an even worse result, last year.  This is what these votes are about and why they are fundamentally good for democracy whatever the detractors say.  Finally, it would be good to put this in a historical context.  Yes, this is the first time a Speaker has not been elected on the first ballot in a hundred years, but it was not highly unusual before then.  The first instance occurred in 1820, and took 22 ballots to resolve.  The record is 133 ballots in 1855, taking two months.  Overall, it has required multiple ballots 14 times from the Founding of the country until 1923, an average of about once every ten years, though the 13 of them occurred before the Civil War.  Either way, we should not be afraid of voting, and it’s telling how many people are.


2 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of a little actual voting in Congress?”

  1. As usual, you make excellent points. A start would be defining “good governance”. In the real world today, it is how you describe it – self-centered, corrupt, and amounting to winning power plays. However, what would it look like in an ideal world? And, what would that world look like? (I don’t expect an answer.) cheers

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, appreciate the kind words as always. Good governance is difficult to define, but I would start with an appreciation for the limitations of government. If you saw my post yesterday on Teddy Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland, there was a time when people actually cared about whether something was Constitutional or not, and whether or not something was drafted correctly. Something like that along with following regular order would be a reasonable place to begin in my mind. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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