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Beyond Bruin Walk: Removal of McCarthy as House speaker reveals congressional dysfunction

Kevin McCarthy’s removal as House Speaker highlights Congressional dysfunction and its consequences. (Wikimedia common courtesy photo by Martin Falbisoner)

By Nicolas Greamo

Oct. 10, 2023 4:15 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 10 at 9:39 p.m. 

On Oct. 3, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy became the first speaker of the House in the history of the United States to be removed by a congressional vote.

It wasn’t difficult to predict that McCarthy would make this kind of history as speaker. McCarthy was clearly unpopular, even among voters in his own party, but he held a bare majority in the House of Representatives after the 2022 congressional election cycle.

The “red wave’s” famous evaporation preserved Democratic control of the Senate, leaving Republicans clinging to a majority of only nine representatives. It was, in theory, enough to elect a speaker and control the House, but it gave a great deal of power and influence to ultraconservative members of the Republican party, who sought to exploit the narrow voting margins to gain concessions from the GOP establishment.

After 15 difficult rounds of voting, McCarthy made a deal with the devil to become speaker. McCarthy’s major concession to the conservative holdouts in the party was to allow any member of the House to file a motion to vacate, triggering the vote to oust the speaker.

On Oct. 3, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., came to collect on McCarthy’s end of the bargain.

The speaker’s crime, in the eyes of his conservative opponents, was collaborating with Democrats to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government from shutting down just hours before the deadline.

While the resolution passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of 335-91, only one of the 90 Republicans who opposed the bill was needed to file the motion to vacate and dethrone McCarthy as speaker.

All it took to remove McCarthy were the votes of Gaetz, who set the process in motion, and seven other Republicans, who joined all the present Democratic representatives in ending McCarthy’s reign in historic fashion.

McCarthy’s fall from power highlights the continuous congressional dysfunction that has only continued to paralyze our republic and undermine the capacity of the government to serve the needs of the American people.

After passing the resolution to fund the government, McCarthy claimed that he was the “adult in the room” and dared his opponents to try and remove him. Gaetz and others took him up on his challenge, but the conflict itself and its ultimate resolution are ultimately on McCarthy and the Republican establishment that have consistently relied on courting far-right candidates and voters in pursuit of their own political agenda.

Put simply, Republicans in Congress are not capable of governing, even if they have the political strength and popular support to enact their agenda.

Even when the Republicans took control of both branches of Congress and the presidency in 2016, the major legislative outcome of the Trump era – outside of appointing conservative judges to the nation’s courts – was the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that principally cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations.

But the political crisis in Congress, which is perhaps a symptom of the decades of mismanagement and political inertia that have brought us to this point, could not have come at a worse time.

The paralysis that a speaker-less House brings is particularly concerning especially because the threat of a government shutdown is still looming.

It often goes unnoticed that the resolution that led to McCarthy losing the speaker’s chair provided only a month and a half of funding for the government. The new deadline for a shutdown is Nov. 17, and there’s a real danger that McCarthy’s removal has only delayed the start of a brewing governmental crisis with far more dramatic consequences for the American people.

While the race among Republicans to select the next speaker is ongoing, several of the frontrunners, including Trump’s endorsed pick Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, are ideological hardliners. Jordan and other speaker candidates may be more willing than McCarthy to extract concessions through the threat of a shutdown or even allow a shutdown to occur to cut spending and force austerity policies for federal programs they oppose.

McCarthy has brought this all on himself, refusing to actually work with the opposing party to save his speakership and reach a reasonable compromise on longer-term government funding when he had every opportunity to do so.

But it’s still possible that the humiliating vote to unseat him may be precipitating a longer standoff along partisan lines over government funding and other priorities. This is especially relevant when the current politicians angling to replace McCarthy know for certain that the representatives on the party’s political fringes were not bluffing when they demanded an essentially unlimited veto on the speakership.

For Democrats, however, this fracas and the dramatic consequences that government inaction will have are an indictment of their failures to preserve control of the House, even if they do manage to avert a government shutdown, which threatens to destroy livelihoods, cripple the U.S.’ already strained public welfare programs and wreak havoc across the American economy.

Despite the political momentum they received from a new generation of more progressive voters and the need to respond to the Supreme Court’s decisions on reproductive rights and other decisive issues, Congressional Democrats lost the house to a Republican Party firmly prepared to play chicken with the federal government until it gets what they want or causes a devastating crash.

Nowhere is this Democratic failure more evident than in the election of alleged conman George Santos, whose lies and alleged illegal activities escaped scrutiny from his Democratic opponent and the Democratic Party’s opposition research, only emerging after his electoral victory. Santos continues to serve as a representative even following his ex-campaign treasurer’s guilty plea last week over federal fraud charges tied to Santos’ congressional campaign.

The American political system is undeniably broken, and an ineffectual and corrupted Congress remains its focal point.

Following McCarthy’s ouster, a new speaker pro tempore was selected: North Carolina Republican Patrick McHenry, not to be confused with the founding father with a similar name who shouted, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

Clearly, this ineffectual and discordant Congress under Republican control cannot provide any meaningful liberty for the American people.

At this point, then, please just give us something else.

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Nicolas Greamo | Assistant Opinion editor
Nicolas Greamo is a 2023-2024 assistant Opinion editor. He was previously a 2022-2023 assistant Opinion editor and a Photo contributor. He is also a third-year history student from Washington, D.C.
Nicolas Greamo is a 2023-2024 assistant Opinion editor. He was previously a 2022-2023 assistant Opinion editor and a Photo contributor. He is also a third-year history student from Washington, D.C.
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