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The real reason the chaos in the House should scare us

Can this Congress actually pass a debt ceiling increase?

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is struggling to win the votes to become speaker of the House
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is struggling to win the votes to become speaker of the House.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Despite the chaos currently engulfing Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become speaker of the House, the chamber’s Republicans will probably, eventually end up united around a GOP speaker candidate.

After that is when things might get really scary.

The core problem is that the House eventually needs to do some things — things that are more substantively important and more complicated than just picking a leader. Specifically, the House needs to fund the federal government, and it needs to raise the debt ceiling to prevent a potentially catastrophic default on the national debt.

Reaching an agreement with Senate Democrats and President Joe Biden is necessary for both. Yet the GOP House majority is quite narrow — they have 222 members, when 218 are necessary for a House majority. So to pass anything at all, Republican leaders have to either win over nearly all of the quarrelsome members on the party’s right flank (something that this week’s events show will be extremely difficult) or win over Democrats (something that could alienate the right and land the party right back into another contested speaker election).

The 20 House Republicans who opposed McCarthy’s speakership at some point Tuesday, denying him the majority of votes he needed to win, differ in which issues seem to move them most. Some, like Chip Roy (TX) and Scott Perry (PA), are anti-government spending ideologues. Others, like Paul Gosar (AZ) and Lauren Boebert (CO), are conspiratorial cranks. Some, like Matt Gaetz (FL), may just be mischief-making malcontents.

Yet all see an advantage in flouting the GOP establishment and what they portray as Washington politics as usual. And they’ve flexed their muscles to show that, yes, they really are stubborn enough to grind their party’s plans to a halt. So whoever is going to end up as speaker will be tasked with a seemingly impossible balancing act — maintaining enough conservative support to stay speaker, while preventing a governing disaster.

In other words, the speakership chaos could well presage a catastrophic collapse of American governance over the debt ceiling and funding issues this year — or at least a very tense situation until a deal can be worked out.

This has been a consistent dynamic of House GOP majorities since the Tea Party years

Since the last time Republicans took over the House of Representatives from a Democratic majority — the Tea Party wave in the 2010 midterms under President Obama — the same problem has kept plaguing their majorities: a recalcitrant right flank that makes it difficult for them to achieve basic government tasks.

Specifically, that right flank became convinced by the idea that a Republican House should try to hold must-pass legislation hostage until the Democratic president and Senate agree to enact major conservative priorities into law.

During the Obama years, many of these conservatives were inherently suspicious of government spending bills that typically passed with bipartisan support. So they pressured party leaders to engage in high-profile showdowns with Democrats.

The first of these showdowns came over the debt ceiling, which is effectively a cap on how much new debt the federal government can issue that must periodically be raised. Partisan posturing over raising the debt ceiling dates back decades, but in 2011 House Republicans seemed scarily serious about it, threatening default unless Democrats agreed to dramatically cut spending, and stoking fears of economic catastrophe. (A deal was eventually reached.)

Then in 2013, the GOP initially refused to fund the government unless Obamacare was defunded — causing a government shutdown that lasted a little over two weeks before Republican leaders caved.

The party’s internal tensions ultimately proved too much for Speaker John Boehner to handle, and after pressure from the newly formed House Freedom Caucus — which became the main organizing body of the chamber’s hard right — and then-Rep. Mark Meadows, he resigned in 2015. His would-be replacement, Kevin McCarthy, then withdrew before the vote because of opposition from the right. Ultimately, though, enough of the hard-liners settled for Paul Ryan as the new speaker and the House avoided further tense legislative battles for the rest of Obama’s presidency. Congress returned to the status quo where appropriations bills passed the GOP House with bipartisan support despite dozens of dissenters on the right.

The election of Donald Trump then scrambled the dynamics of these fights, and of the Republican Party ideologically. The Freedom Caucus still agitated against spending, but immigration, the culture war, and personal allegiance to Trump all rose in importance as issues, and battles over the size and scope of governance per se became relatively less consuming.

The Republican House speaker’s governance doom loop

Still, this year’s big legislative fights are highly likely to return to those time-tested topics of government funding and the debt ceiling for a simple reason — that’s the stuff Congress has to do, and that Democrats need Republican cooperation on. (Controversial stand-alone bills that House Republicans pass can safely be ignored by the Democratic Senate.)

But the balancing act McCarthy or the speaker-to-be-named-later will face is even trickier than the one that took down Boehner.

For one, 222 Republicans is a much smaller majority than Speaker Boehner ever had (his smallest majority was 234). That means the speaker can lose only five GOP votes before having to rely on Democrats to pass something. Simply put, there are significantly more than five Republicans whose votes will be difficult to win on these must-pass bills. Not all of the 19 or so anti-McCarthy hard-liners are intensely focused on shrinking the size of government, but several of them are.

The solution appears obvious: The must-pass bills have to pass, or else the speaker’s party will pay a big political price, so the speaker will have to rely on some Democrats to get them over the finish line.

The problem is that when a GOP speaker does cut a deal with Democrats, conservatives will be angry. They may well be angry enough to put forward a “motion to vacate the chair.” This is a privileged motion that can essentially force a vote of no confidence in the speaker before the full House. And if the speaker loses that vote, the House would end up back where it is right now — an open speaker’s election.

For most of the House’s history, any one member could put such a motion forward. In 2019, Democrats changed the rules so that a majority of one party was required. But the anti-McCarthy Republicans have been demanding the threshold be lowered to just one member again. In an effort to win the votes of holdouts, McCarthy proposed lowering the threshold to five members. Effectively, that would give any five troublemakers the ability to reopen the speaker’s election, unless Democrats bail McCarthy out. So far, that concession and others have not been enough.

The big picture is that it’s not clear a governing majority of 218 of these 222 Republicans is possible. The speaker may well need to rely fairly regularly on Democratic votes — to raise the debt ceiling, to fund the government, to defeat a motion to vacate the chair. Yet seeking those Democratic votes will make that speaker anathema on the right, leading to rising conservative opposition and perhaps their overthrow.

How do we get out of this?

There are only two real ways out of the doom loop.

One is through a bipartisan House governing majority, with some Democrats and some Republicans. In one sense, this is centrist fan fiction — a formal power-sharing deal is extremely unlikely, due to the animosity between the two parties. Yet in another sense, House Republican majorities have relied on Democratic votes to get must-pass government funding bills through since the Obama administration.

The second way out is for GOP leaders to somehow convince the hard right to chill. And you might say, good luck with that, but it has worked in the past — at least for a while.

As I mentioned above, when Boehner was pressured into resigning in 2015 and Ryan became his replacement, that was basically it for the big Obama-era spending fights. It would have been possible for firebrand conservatives to use the motion to vacate the chair against Ryan, too, but they never did — they were convinced they’d made their point. Similarly, House GOP leaders successfully avoided further debt ceiling confrontation after the 2011 crisis, and after their 2013 shutdown debacle they didn’t just keep banging their heads against the wall triggering further shutdowns under Obama.

The question is whether the new GOP speaker will be sufficiently politically deft to come up to the brink and actually pull his members back from it in this year’s legislative battles — particularly over the debt ceiling, because of the risks of economic crisis there. Will he or she be able to eventually convince enough Republicans that, yes, the government does have to be funded, and the debt ceiling does have to be raised, and the Democratic Senate and President Biden aren’t just going to meekly submit to ultimatums?

If the new GOP proves too dysfunctional to accept this, we could be in for a dangerous showdown — one in which Biden may have to explore options for addressing the debt ceiling without congressional support at all.