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Why speaker of the House is the worst job in Washington

US House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (3rd R) leaves after a closed House Republican election meeting to pick the next GOP House Speaker nominee October 8, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
US House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (3rd R) leaves after a closed House Republican election meeting to pick the next GOP House Speaker nominee October 8, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

God, it sucks to be the Republican speaker of the House.

It should be one of the best jobs in Washington — vested with power, prestige, and the good feeling that comes with running the federal body closest to the people. Instead, it's a fool's errand.

The current speaker, John Boehner, is resigning. The man in line to succeed him, Kevin McCarthy, withdrew from the race Thursday. Paul Ryan, who might actually be able to pull together a chaotic caucus, doesn't want to have anything to do with the job. Neither of McCarthy's competitors, Daniel Webster of Florida and Jason Chaffetz of Utah, was considered a viable contender against him. No one who can do the job wants it.

"Whoever steps into this role has to put a bunch of jigsaw puzzle pieces together, and right now they don't seem to ever fit," explained Rep. Frank Lucas, a veteran Republican from Oklahoma. "It's a daunting task. A lot of my colleagues who are very bright, very sincere, and very ambitious might be concerned that the next speaker for the remainder of this term of office might be volunteering to captain the Titanic."

Lucas, who has been in the House since 1994, said it's possible the next speaker can bring Republicans together, but "this role now's going to be harder than it's been anytime in my lifetime."

There are a lot of reasons the job of speaker has become less desirable over the years, from fundraising demands to losing power over perks like earmarks and watching the dysfunction of Congress rob the institution of some of its clout. But the real issue is as brutal as the total disrespect rank-and-file Republicans have shown for the office and the institution it represents — and, I would argue, for the American public.

Our system of governance only works when our elected leaders are willing to either compromise or find common ground. The speaker's job, by its very nature, requires making deals — with the minority in the House, with the Senate, and with the White House. The idea, hard as it is for some in the House to understand or accept, is that the republic functions when people and parties of disparate views can agree. Sometimes that requires giving up a little bit of ground. But this small band of House Republicans is unwilling to do that. Its members threaten to take down the speaker when he tries to govern. That's an affront to the institution and to the republic.

"No one appreciates sacrifice anymore," Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) said of his colleagues. "It's hard work, and no one appreciates it."

Republicans have made it a bad job

In some ways, Boehner was the victim of his own success.

He rode the Tea Party wave to power in 2010, aligning himself with a burn-the-House-down crowd that doesn't really want Washington to function. Over the course of the next two election cycles, he built the Republican majority to 247 members, its largest size in generations. But he paid the price in being held hostage by a rambunctious rank and file eager to prove its mettle by shutting down the government and threatening to default on American debt.

A person close to McCarthy said that dynamic influenced his surprise decision to pull out of the speaker race just before the election was scheduled to be held. Even if he had won the job, the day-to-day battle to fend off a vituperative band of rebels would have made it miserable.

McCarthy made the decision with his wife and kids, and gave a quick heads-up to his longtime friend Ryan, who had endorsed McCarthy for speaker. Boehner found out when his own chief of staff, Mike Somers, and McCarthy's chief of staff, Tim Berry, pulled him into a ceremonial office to deliver the news a few minutes after noon, according to a source familiar with the conversation. At about 12:15, McCarthy told Boehner again, personally, just before announcing it to a closed-door meeting of House Republicans who were expecting to nominate him for speaker.

McCarthy and his allies cited interminable political and personal attacks, and the difficulty of passing legislation, as the reasons McCarthy dropped out. In an interview with Politico, he said he worried about being able to pass a debt limit increase and a new spending bill.

"He’s not going to be repeatedly attacked by 40 members of our conference," a person close to him said. "Nothing will ever be good enough for them, and Kevin doesn’t want to put his family through that and he doesn’t want to put the 200-plus other members through that."

The most important and difficult thing to understand is that the recalcitrant Republicans don't espouse an ideology of governance. Some are more conservative, some are more moderate. Some talk more about economic issues, some talk more about social issues. Many of them have established a nihilist club they call the "Freedom Caucus." What unifies them is their burning, raging, unquenchable desire to destroy whatever they deem, at any given moment, to be the establishment.

It wasn't enough to shut down the government in 2013 or to force the nation to the brink of fiscal calamity. When Republican leaders in Congress frustrated their goals to keep the country running, they turned their fire inward. After Boehner announced he would resign, they went after McCarthy. If they could tar and feather Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell without alerting his security detail, they would.

I think the best way to look at it is this: Anyone who wants to be speaker of the House, by definition, should be someone who wants to participate in governing the country. The Freedom Caucus and its ilk are preventing anyone who holds the job from doing that. So what's the point in being speaker in a Republican House? It sure as hell isn't to govern responsibly. Thus, no one in the GOP who feels a commitment to that ideal wants it.

The job itself really isn't all that bad — if you're a Democrat

Right after the McCarthy news broke, I caught up with Nancy Pelosi, the last Democratic speaker of the House, as she was walking back to her office from the House floor. She was in a very good mood.

"Why do you think nobody wants to be speaker?" I asked.

"You're just going to have to ask 'nobody,'" she said, laughing.

"Is it a worse job for Republicans?" I asked.

"You know what, I think it’s a great job," she said. "It has great opportunity and I’m sure they’ll find somebody who is capable of accepting the honor."

"You're sure?" I followed up.

"I hope," she replied.

Pelosi is under no illusion about how difficult it is to pull together 218 members from within a single party to move legislation forward. She carried Obamacare, Dodd-Frank financial regulations, and even a cap-and-trade bill across the floor against the wishes of some in her caucus. She was demonized in Republican ads across the country during the 2010 election, and she knows that adding the official duties of the speaker to the fundraising and candidate recruitment chores she already tends to as Democratic leader are an additional burden. And yet she's eager to hold the gavel.

"We want to win it," she said, referring to next November's election.

Drew Hammill, Pelosi's spokesperson, followed up with me after our conversation to make sure I had his take on what had happened: "It’s up to House Republicans to choose the next speaker," he said. And that's why the job isn't worth having.

Check out Vox's new podcast "The Weeds" for more on the insider issues in Washington