Chaos in Congress is Republicans’ problem now. Soon, it could be everyone’s

The new U.S. Congress is stuck at the starting line. It could be an omen. 

Republicans in the House of Representatives are, for only the second time since the U.S. Civil War, struggling to elect a Speaker.

This should be the easy part. Republicans will attempt yet again Thursday afternoon to name a congressional leader after a second unsuccessful day.

The two days of torture suffered by Republican Kevin McCarthy, who’s now lost a string of votes for House Speaker, could be a preview of a difficult two years ahead, with consequences reaching beyond the U.S. and touching the world economy.

This crew struggling to elect a Speaker will soon be asked to perform far more difficult tasks, like funding the U.S. government and approving U.S. debt payments.

“It is a really worrying portent,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, an author, historian of conservatism and centre-right Republican himself.

“Basically it comes down to the fact that the Republican Party, as presently constituted, is not really governable,” he said. 

“I think that even a lot of the Democrats, who are kind of gleeful over this vision of Republican chaos right now, understand that this is going to cause real problems later on.”

The paralysis in the House illustrates a warning for 2023 by the geopolitical risk-assessment Eurasia Group: that American political dysfunction could hurt other countries, and it specifically mentioned Canada.

The standoff has historical precedents.

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Historical echoes of current feud

Several times before the Civil War, then again in 1923, it took a gruelling series of votes to muster up the necessary majority for any one candidate to lead the U.S. House. 

These moments were transition points defined by political crises. Kabaservice notes a common factor of those moments: a rise of anti-immigration politics, following surges in immigration and demographic change. 

There are other relevant parallels. 

In 1923, the standoff was driven by different overlapping factors, according to a contemporaneous report: personal power-struggles and policy differences.

Like today, Republicans were fresh off a difficult midterm. Backbenchers insisted on a course-correction in policy, though in that case, the rebels were centrists. Personal ambition was also at play, with demands for coveted positions.

Once again, after a disappointing midterm, it’s a season of rebellion. 

The Republican Party barely has a majority and a small group of insurgents have used their newfound power to stall the chamber. 

Intra-party feud: Some Trump supporters, indeed the ex-president himself, back McCarthy. Other Trump allies oppose McCarthy.Some Trump supporters, even the former president himself, are backing McCarthy for Speaker, while other Trump allies oppose him. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)


Those seeking to oust McCarthy tend to be uncompromising right-wingers who are drawn disproportionately from the pool of members that backed Donald Trump’s bid to overturn the 2020 election and rejected compromise with Democrats.

But it’s more than that.

This is an intra-MAGA feud: you have staunch pro-Trump Republicans like Marjorie Taylor Greene and even Trump himself backing McCarthy, versus a cast of rebels including pro-Trump types like Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert. 

A stew of causes has coalesced here. 

Policy disagreements are one ingredient, just like in 1923. As is power: Rebels want committee assignments and an easier way to dump leaders, and they also want party brass to stop funding primary challenges against them.

Lauren Bell, a scholar of the U.S. Congress at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, said there’s also a performative element from politicians who prize building an anti-establishment brand.

But she said there are real policy differences — like a desire to enact maximum term lengths, toughen border protections, cut budgets and shift power to backbenchers.

Given the right circumstances, Bell said this sort of insurgency could happen on the Democratic side as well, but she said Republican backbenchers simply contest their leaders more often.

For example, she noted that progressives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar vote against their party about four per cent of the time, while conservatives Boebert and Gaetz do it about 25 per cent of the time.

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Then there’s the most basic human element of all: Personal rivalry. 

Matthew Continetti, a conservative who has studied and written about the history of the Republican Party, said the poorer-than-expected midterm performance created a perfect storm — with a narrow majority that left McCarthy vulnerable. 

He suddenly needs near-unanimous party support to get the required 218 votes and he needs it from representatives of hardcore Republican districts.

Those people are not necessarily huge admirers of their current leader, a nine-term party establishment player from California.

“The rebels’ main complaint is personal. They don’t trust McCarthy,” said Continetti, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who says he can’t see an obvious path now for McCarthy. 

“They see him as tied to a pre-Trump congressional leadership.”

McCarthy has already tried giving his opponents some of what they want: He’s made peace with members like Taylor Greene; he’s promised rules that make it easier to oust a Speaker; he says he’ll give lawmakers more time to read bills; he pledged to investigate the federal government’s pandemic restrictions and investigate the origins of COVID-19; and, on Wednesday night, he reportedly agreed to limit establishment involvement in primaries. 

The rebels have spent days pushing for more.

Some of the rebels, seen here last month, from right to left, Chip Roy, Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz. They have disparate demands ranging from more conservative policy, to new committee jobs for themselves. Some of the Republicans who oppose McCarthy, from left, Chip Roy, Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz are seen last month in Congress. They have disparate demands ranging from more conservative policy, to new committee jobs for themselves. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

What the rebels want

Boebert said a group this week pressed McCarthy to fight for term limits for members of Congress; budget spending restrictions; and a suite of border measures that include a wall with Mexico.

“He eagerly dismissed us,” Boebert said Tuesday.

Gaetz derided the Republican leader as the so-called political swamp’s biggest alligator, calling him untrustworthy and evasive during weeks of policy discussions.

“All we got was a handful of ‘howdy’ and a mouthful of ‘much obliged,’ ” Gaetz said during a news conference Tuesday. 

Then he got personal, essentially calling McCarthy a liar and noting that McCarthy’s own mentor says it, too.

Bill Thomas, the former lawmaker who once held McCarthy’s California seat, echoed a common criticism of his former protege: that he’s a back-slapping stereotype of a politician who tells audiences what they want to hear. 

“Kevin basically is whatever you want him to be,” Thomas has said. “He lies. He’ll change the lie if necessary. How can anyone trust his word?”

For Matt Gaetz, seen here in the middle, the feud with McCarthy has gotten personal.Gaetz, centre, has made the feud with McCarthy more personal, going so far as to essentially call him a liar. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

What’s next? 

One of three things must happen.

The most dramatic, and by far the least likely, would involve a power-sharing deal between Democrats and Republicans; where a critical mass of moderates from both parties would back a unity candidate.

A likelier possibility? The rebels give up. After gaining some new concessions late Wednesday, some could back McCarthy or simply boycott the final vote.

Barring that, Republicans could move on and find a replacement for McCarthy, with one possible alternative being caucus whip Steve Scalise. 

The Louisiana lawmaker, who survived a 2017 shooting, is a touch more conservative than McCarthy, according to different statistical scorecards. 

In any case, the discord on display won’t evaporate. And it didn’t emerge overnight — John Boehner was forced out as Speaker by conservatives and his successor, Paul Ryan, retired early. 

Eventually, the new House majority, led by McCarthy or someone else, will find unity in opposing Democrats. Republicans will launch multiple aggressive investigations. 

This Congress will have to approve new debt spending in several months or the U.S. risks a once-unthinkable possibility: a default on some of its debt. Seen here: A tally of the U.S. national debt, in a photo from New York City in 2017. A tally of the U.S. national debt is seen in New York City in 2017. This Congress will have to approve new debt spending in several months or the U.S. risks a once-unthinkable possibility: a default on some of its debt. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

But enacting legislation will be harder.

Two major economic events are looming this fall and they’ll require action. U.S. federal funding will lapse, and the U.S. will hit its notorious debt ceiling.

Failure to pass funding bills could lead to a government shutdown or, worse, the U.S. defaulting on debt obligations. 

Canada, and the rest of the world, have about 31 trillion reasons to care about that. 

That’s the size of the U.S. debt, and projections about the potential economic consequences of an American default range from bad to catastrophic. 

Then, suddenly, the rest of the planet could feel McCarthy’s pain.

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