We heard repeatedly last week from pundits and politicians on the right that democracy is messy and we must let the process play out. And yes, up to a certain point, rigorous debate between factions inside a political party is beneficial.
For example, few conservatives would argue that stand-alone spending bills on individual items of business aren’t preferable to one behemoth Omnibus bill, filled with pork barrel spending, especially one that contains over 4,000 pages and is delivered the day before lawmakers are expected to vote. The ability for congressmen to propose amendments to legislation is even better. And the truth is that power has become too concentrated in the House speaker position which diminishes the voices of other members. The Freedom Caucus members were right to address these and many other issues.
But there comes a time, especially when 222 individuals are involved, for compromise to replace rigid demands.
As the stalemate continued into its third day, Elon Musk announced his support for Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy, asking, “If not McCarthy, then seriously who?” It was a valid question. McCarthy, with his less than stellar conservative record, was not the perfect nominee. But no other serious candidate had come forward and none of those proposed by the Freedom Caucus members had been able to garner more than 20 Republican votes. McCarthy had won the support of over 90 percent of the GOP caucus, while Florida Rep. Byron Donalds had the backing of just 10 percent. And, while I have tremendous respect for Donalds, it’s a stretch to say he’s ready to run the House after serving just two years in Congress.
Throughout the grueling process, McCarthy continued to compromise, eventually providing a written list of concessions which addressed all of the legitimate grievances of the Freedom Caucus members.
Ahead of the 14th ballot, McCarthy and his supporters felt cautiously optimistic about his chances of victory. And why wouldn’t they? In an appearance on Fox News’ “Hannity” less than an hour prior to the vote, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, the most outspoken member of the opposition, and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert seemed delighted with the concessions they’d extracted. Gaetz even referred to McCarthy as the speaker designate and joked that he’d run out of things to ask for.
Yet, rather than throwing his support to McCarthy, Gaetz voted present. As did Boebert. Although this had the effect of lowering the number of votes needed to win to 217, it still left McCarthy one vote short of victory and neither Gaetz nor Boebert would agree to switch their votes. Moreover, Gaetz was among the group of House members who voted to adjourn the session until Monday morning.
Inexplicably, Gaetz had a sudden change of heart and reversed that decision, opting to move on to a 15th ballot. According to the New York Times, Trump had called Gaetz, Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs and the other three GOP holdouts.
Gaetz once again voted present. But Biggs and the last three holdouts changed their votes for other candidates to present, lowering the threshold required for victory and finally, on the 15th ballot, McCarthy won the speakership.
But he’d paid a heavy price and will operate on a pretty short leash. Much like the tarnishing of a once-solid candidate during a bruising intra-party primary, last week’s theatrics have weakened McCarthy.
Although I’ve never been a McCarthy fan, it struck me that, over the course of four days, he’d done an awful lot of compromising while the minority members, well aware of the power they held, called all the shots. Members’ personal attacks on McCarthy, in particular those from Gaetz and Boebert, only added to the strain.
Even after their demands had been met, some members continued to squeeze McCarthy for personal concessions such as committee assignments. That crossed a line and what had begun as good-faith negotiations eventually turned into a hostage situation.
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) told CBS News on Sunday that Gaetz was fundraising off the floor fight. “Matt Gaetz is a fraud. Every time he voted against Kevin McCarthy last week, he sent out a fundraising email.” (A portion of one of his emails can be viewed here along with snippets of similar emails from others in his group.)
Two of the most basic principles of democracy are majority rule and the “protection of individual and minority rights.”
It can’t be denied that McCarthy accommodated the minority’s demands and the House will be better for it. Yet, they continued to obstruct. And rather than watching democracy in action, the spectacle on the House floor began to resemble a political hijacking.
This raises concerns about the House GOP’s ability to unite around critical issues and initiatives once the legislative session begins. Say what you will about Democrats. Whatever goes on behind closed doors, they consistently present a united front and rarely air their party’s divisions.
On his Sunday night program, Fox News’ Mark Levin reminded viewers of Ben Franklin’s words at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 where debate among members had devolved into bitterness and deep division. Acknowledging that the document wasn’t perfect, he told his colleagues to “administer it.”
Franklin wrote: “For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all of their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly, can a perfect production be expected?”
The House majority is all we have right now. And conspicuous division among members is a luxury we can’t afford if we hope to win back the White House and the Senate in 2024.
A previous version of this article appeared in The Washington Examiner.
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