The Republican holdouts who refused to vote for Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., are “dissidents,” “rebels” or worse. “Drama and dysfunction continuing…” CNN said after a commercial break.
Or maybe those who gummed up the vote should be described as “Republican insurgents.” Those are the two words the Baltimore Sun used on Dec. 6, 1923, to describe the last time the House speakership went to multiple ballots. More about that in a moment.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., said it best on Wednesday as he rose to nominate McCarthy — the fourth time it had been done. "Sure, it looks messy," he said. "But democracy is messy. Democracy is messy. By design ... and that's a feature … not a bug of our system."
Americans have become so used to hyper-partisan politics, where each side retreats to its foxhole and lobs talking-point grenades, that they may forget how representative government is meant to be a clash of ideas and demands, where eventual compromises emerge to give each side something, and no side all it wants. They forget that sometimes different ideas exist even within one political party, mirroring those among rank-and-file party members nationwide, and that these can boil up in the chambers where the people’s representatives meet.
They forget this isn’t a crisis. It’s how things are supposed to run.
Nations in which many parties negotiate to form parliamentary coalitions and governing bodies are used to this sort of thing. Americans have been blessed with a two-party system that tends to absorb much of the blunt-force trauma of governing.
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”
But of course we don’t have a pure democracy. We have a republic, in which people democratically elect leaders to represent them and their needs against the needs of districts throughout a vast and diverse nation. It has to be messy.
You want efficient government? Go to China, where the ruling communist party last year established something called Xi Jinping Thought as its guiding principle. Retired party members had been warned by the party’s general office prior to the congress not to make any negative comments about party actions.
And yet, we know that doesn’t end the negative thoughts, nor does it quell the dis-satisfactions.
The Founders were well-acquainted with the clash of ideas. But when it comes to choosing a House speaker, all they said in the Constitution was, “The House of Representatives shall choose their speaker and other officers …” In other words, “You guys figure it out. We’re not going to make all the rules for you.”
The fact that this situation has not come up in nearly 100 years is remarkable. And the fact that today’s struggle so closely mirrors the one in 1923 is downright eerie.
Then, as now, the fight was over the rules of the House. In 1923, the fight was between moderate and progressive Republicans. It ended when both sides agreed to let the progressives present their liberalized rules to the Rules Committee, and to amend or send them back if they didn’t like the outcome.
The Washington Evening Star’s editorial board called this “a happy outcome of what might have developed into a serious, party-splitting quarrel …” The nation, it said, “expects legislation among constructive lines.”
And you thought things had changed.
Today’s Republican clash is all about the more conservative wing of the party, and the rules in question would weaken leadership. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board said this week, “More than a few Republicans, alas, have a history of preferring combative sound bites to actual governing …” adding that, “the reality is that conservative policy victories over the next two years will necessarily involve negotiating for half a loaf.”
Oh yes, even a unified Republican House still has to deal with a Democratic Senate in order to get anything done.
More clashes are in store. They won’t be crises, nor will they be examples of dysfunction — just democracy in action.