Status: 21/09/2023, 17:08 p.m.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, is paralyzed in his own block by a small group of far-right lawmakers. © Elizabeth Frantz/The Washington Post
Thanks to old rules, a small group of radical Republicans govern part of the U.S. government. Even his own faction is powerless in the face of this goings-on.
WASHINGTON – The Founding Fathers of the United States drafted a constitution that strengthened the rights of minorities. However, she explicitly stayed away from something that was common in the Polish parliament of the 18th century: There, the Latin phrase "Sisto activitatem!" (I'm quitting the job!) proclaimed. This allowed a single Polish member of parliament to declare the end of the respective session – and declare all laws passed null and void. The resulting paralysis of legislation allowed the armies of neighbors to invade and dismember defenseless Poland.
USA: Radical group of Republicans paralyzes the US Congress
Today's U.S. Congress does not operate according to the "liberum veto," as scholars called this tradition. But the increasing accumulation of power by a small group of Republicans has left the House of Representatives almost completely dysfunctional. "The Founding Fathers, such as Alexander Hamilton, would have looked with horror at what is happening today," said Daniel Ziblatt, a professor at Harvard University and a specialist in democracies. He added, "House Republicans are playing with fire."
Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky of Harvard University have just published their book "Tyranny of the Minority," in which they examine how American democracy is increasingly dictated by the minority party through obscure rules, customs, and traditions in Congress.
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There have already been filibuster proceedings in the Senate
Over the past decade, a wealth of work has appeared on the subject, with a focus on the tradition of the filibuster procedure in the Senate, which has prevented some very popular bills.
In the last two weeks, however, a completely different level of minority rule has been introduced. Each senator must find 40 like-minded people to captivate the Senate and leave 59 others frustrated. In the House of Representatives, with its narrow Republican majority, the rules and traditions have been twisted to such an extent that only five members – out of 435 districts – control the chamber and dictate the results.
US House of Representatives: Speaker McCarthy is powerless against his own ranks
Just before the House of Representatives went into summer recess at the end of July, a small group of about 15 far-right conservatives forced Speaker Kevin McCarthy to withdraw the normally simple task of approving funds for the Department of Agriculture. Last week, the same group forced Republican leaders to withdraw the Defense Department funding bill — another bill that is usually easy to pass.
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On Tuesday, five Republicans joined forces with 209 Democrats to vote against the rules that call for a debate on the defense bill — just enough to inflict a humiliating defeat on McCarthy's leadership team.
It is the second time in four months that this small bloc of far-right MEPs has thwarted the vote on the Rules of Procedure, which, although crucial, traditionally involves the majority party voting yes and the minority voting no. In this century, only one vote on the Rules of Procedure has failed, and that was more than two decades ago.
Moreover, this small caucus has usurped control of the broader Republican agenda of the House of Representatives by threatening to sabotage any future rule vote unless legislation is drafted exactly to the liking of this tiny group of lawmakers.
All of this has left McCarthy powerless as a lawmaker, unable to pass even the most basic laws, and heading for a government shutdown in ten days, which he is determined to avoid.
"I can't remember ever having a time when the level of speakers was so weak. We all know what's going on here," said Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, a 27-year veteran of the House of Representatives and a leading Democrat on the House Rules Committee.
Radicals want to chase McCarthy out of the office of speaker in the House of Representatives
In addition to threatening to block votes on the Rules of Procedure to sabotage legislation deemed insufficiently conservative, these few right-wing Republicans are also threatening to make even more obscure procedural motions to oust McCarthy from office.
The most reasonable option for the speaker would usually be to negotiate with the Democrats, who want to keep the government open and ideologically inclined to have a functioning Congress.
"They could come up with a bill that would get not just a majority, but probably a clear majority," McGovern said, referring specifically to the defense bill, but also to most other laws in general.
But McCarthy has severely damaged his relations with the Democrats, first by failing to honor the debt and budget agreement he reached with President Biden in May and instructing his proxies to cut more than $100 billion from agency budgets — even though he had previously agreed to them. Last week, McCarthy said he wanted to initiate impeachment proceedings over the business dealings of Biden's son, Hunter, although lawmakers have yet to provide direct evidence linking the president to those activities.
To help McCarthy vote on rules, the Democrats would demand concessions. "You see, we're not cheap friends," McGovern said. Further concessions to the Democrats would prompt McCarthy's far-right opponents to file a motion to vacate the chamber, a procedure known for kicking speakers out of the chamber in the middle of their term.
This request has only been made once, in 1910 by Speaker of Parliament Joe Cannon, who wanted to demonstrate his power. He asked an ally to formally make the request, and Cannon then won by nearly 40 votes.
Boehner had the same problem as McCarthy
Over the past decade, this motion, which was intended as a show of force, has been turned upside down to threaten to oust speakers, first John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and now McCarthy. Boehner resigned in the fall of 2015 instead of forcing his members to vote on whether to remain in parliament. He also said he did not want to rely on the votes of the minority to stay in power.
Ziblatt and Levitsky, who also wrote the 2018 bestseller "How Democracies Die," see all of these machinations around customs that used to have no basis as part of the decaying nature of Congress.
"Normally, we think the problem is constitutional, but much of minority rule in the U.S. is based on the abuse of procedural rules — the filibuster in the Senate and what's happening in the House of Representatives today," Ziblatt said Wednesday.
The renegades, who want to impose their will on the House of Representatives, have tried to explain that their real goal is to allow "open rules" so that an unlimited number of amendments can be tabled. This would disperse the power of the Speaker of the House of Representatives and Senate Majority Leader, who have gained an outsized amount of control in recent years.
"If we have a truly open process, every member in all 435 counties of the country will be able to have an equal say and participate on an equal footing," Matthew M. Rosendale (R-Mont), one of the five lawmakers who blocked the defense bill, said Wednesday.
But this argument does not hold water, if you look at their actions. Yes, they demanded a commitment from McCarthy to examine the twelve annual government funding bills in an open process during the voting marathon in early January. The reality, however, is that these far-right lawmakers are only empowering themselves by refusing to allow the House of Representatives to consider laws if they do not conform to their ideological ideas.
Dispute over budget debt: Republicans force McCarthy to abandon Biden compromise
With a majority of 314-117 votes, both Republicans and Democrats have approved the debt agreement between Biden and McCarthy, which sets the budget framework for the next two years. The small faction of the hard right, less than two dozen in total, instead forced McCarthy to write the budgets with drastically lower numbers. So much for "equal say" and "equal opportunities" for all 435 MEPs.
These legislators demanded the so-called regular order for the expenditure bills, but when the regular order produced an overall budget figure that they did not like, they eliminated the regular order through both threats of sabotage and actual sabotage. And now that the regular order is not being respected, this extremely small minority is berating McCarthy for not adhering to the regular order.
In the last four years of California Rep. Nancy Pelosi's tenure as Speaker, Democrats have struggled with their own ideological flank, but they have never lost a vote on procedural rules, and she has never faced demands to be removed from office.
"Because we didn't have nihilists," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who was Pelosi's deputy for 20 years. "We didn't have people who were anarchists, or people who didn't care about a government acting on behalf of the American people, who thought that their cause was superior to all others, and therefore the rest was damned."
About the author
Paul Kane is the chief congressional correspondent and columnist for The Washington Post. His column on Congress, @PKCapitol, is published during the week and on Sundays. He has been working for Swiss Post since 2007.
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