I couldn’t help but chuckle the other night as I watched Fox News’s Sean Hannity interview new Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on his nightly program.
The Speaker, surrounded by a smattering of happy-looking Republicans, answered a few softball type inquiries from the TV host and reiterated that he intended to keep his word in the new Congress while holding Democrats to account for their vast array of wrongs and transgressions, all the while trimming the federal budget and fixing the stuff that needs to be fixed in the always contentious lower chamber.
McCarthy appeared humble and ready to take on the enormous challenges ahead of him. The political “war” hasn’t really begun yet, even if he did have to spend a good deal of his pre-Speaker election political capital to obtain his lofty post. Powerless, he is not.
Not everyone agrees that McCarthy is so free to wield his authority now. In a piece titled “McCarthy Is Our First Ceremonial House Speaker”, the usually right-on point David Catron wrote at The American Spectator the other day:
“[D]espite the happy talk we have heard from some conservative commentators suggesting that the speakership fight was a healthy demonstration of democracy in action, it was not. It was instead the cynical exploitation of the GOP’s narrow majority by 10 percent of the Republican conference who regard themselves as the only real conservatives in the party. They publicly disparaged McCarthy, dismissed the 90 percent of their conference who voted for him as RINOs, and demanded seats on powerful committees for themselves.
“For now, these people have what they wanted. The speakership has been reduced to a ceremonial position, and they wield far more power on House committees than their numbers justify. Now they must prove that they can govern with the narrow majority they were so anxious to control. Then they will know if ‘the juice was worth the squeeze.’ If not, they won’t get much sympathy, and they certainly won’t be able to blame Kevin McCarthy.”
Au contraire, Mr. Catron. Kevin McCarthy is hardly helpless and if he screws up, there’s no one to blame but himself.
I’ve read David Catron’s columns for years and I can scarcely remember a moment where I vehemently disagreed with him, but there’s always a first time for everything – and this may be that occasion! The House “rump caucus” as Catron called them was entirely justified in doing what they did, and the Republican Party, for the first time in however long, will function as a coherent unit in 2023 to get something accomplished.
It may not be wise to be so open about it, but the rule that once again allows a single House member to call for a chamber-wide vote to vacate the Speaker’s chair is actually a nothingburger. Really. The rule essentially grants immense authority, but it’s not a power that anyone is itching to use… unless the Speaker, in this case McCarthy, strays far enough from his original promises and positions so as to stimulate a mass – and undeniable, even to semi-subjective observers -- opposition to his continuing on in that position.
It just isn’t likely to happen, and Matt Gaetz even said so himself the other night on Laura Ingraham’s show in a joint-appearance with fellow “rebel” and sparkplug Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert. Gaetz relayed that he doesn’t anticipate ever using the power to vacate, just that it was essential to include the provision into the rules package at the outset of Congress so as to guarantee accountability from the Speaker himself.
As would be expected, Democrats hate the rule, primarily because they surmise that Republicans and conservatives, if given the power to undermine the Speaker under the rules, would throw the House into chaos whenever they felt an inkling. Democrats strongly imply that conservatives are unstable and petty (look in the mirror, Democrats), kind of like children in a daycare center.
A Democrat daycare center would have it that if one kid cried or soiled his or her underwear during story time that every one of them would be punished equally by cancelling the whole thing and compelling the children to return to their nap mats to sleep and remain silent for the rest of the preschool day.
There are other examples in society of a power that exists but is rarely used in a strict enforcement kind of way. Take speed limits. Every motorist is aware that a so-called “limit” exists but there’s an unwritten “understanding” among drivers and police personnel that going a few miles per hour above the posted number won’t stimulate a traffic stop. Why? Because if the highway patrol or local sheriff tried to strictly abide by the official rules, he (or she) would have to pull practically everyone to the side, every day. Then there would be absolute chaos. And no one wants to bother with being interrupted for such a petty concern each time they hit the road, would they?
I’m not talking about Home Owner’s Associations or traffic light “speed trap” cameras here. They’re not part of sane society.
Nations with nuclear weapons have a similar unspoken arrangement. Basically, it’s “we won’t obliterate your country and your population if you will return the courtesy.” In this age of Vladimir Putin, nonsensical NATO alliances with countries that border Russia, American neocons and the ongoing war in Ukraine, this non-nuclear use gentleman’s agreement might not last in perpetuity. We’ll see. We hope it does.
But what member of Congress these days would use the one-person “vacate” authority without justification? The same power existed for hundreds of years prior to Nancy Pelosi extinguishing it to preserve her own rear-end, and, to my understanding, it was almost never employed. I recall that John Boehner was challenged at least once under the rule – in 2015 by then-Rep. Mark Meadows -- but survived and ultimately left as the result of his own “it’s time to go” decision.
Parents always have the right to spank their kid’s backside, but that doesn’t mean we use it, do we?
Imagine if there was a “motion to vacate” in professional or college football where any one fan could call for a local referendum to determine whether the head coach possessed the confidence of the team’s fan base. Sure, this probably wouldn’t be a good idea, but the House of Representatives, like the football team’s owner (or college regent governing board) isn’t governed in such a power vacuum. The only “vote of confidence” needed is the guy or guys or gals who write the checks. Joe six-pack doesn’t get an official say.
No member of Congress would act in such a manner – or maybe a Democrat would, but Pelosi wouldn’t grant them the choice. Matt Gaetz and the rest of the so-called “rebels” were working entirely under the assumption that the House status quo had to change, and that keeping McCarthy – or any Speaker – accountable without such a provision in the rules would’ve been extremely challenging.
For his part, McCarthy seems like a good man, but he is definitely a member of the DC swamp establishment and therefore subject to eternal scrutiny and vigilance. And he’s also had some past weak moments that would engender suspicion that he’d capitulate again. Therefore, with the “motion to vacate” power restored under the new rules, California Kevin will more than likely keep his word. And what’s wrong with that?
Politicians are human beings, even if they don’t always seem like it. No one appreciates being despised and there are only so many “lone wolf” types who win elections. Even if one wayward outcast did file a “motion to vacate”, the gesture wouldn’t be successful without the assent of the other House members. That’s almost certain not to take place – again, unless McCarthy merits the removal.
Therefore, the “motion to vacate” is actually a toothless tiger, one that fascinates the establishment media – and Republicans’ enemies – but doesn’t mean much in actuality. Where the rubber meets the proverbial road, nothing much has changed in Congress. It’s much ado about nothing, mere fodder for CNN and MSNBC cable hosts to feed liberal anti-Republican guests to talk about.
Besides, the Democrats filed their own type of “motion to vacate” against former President Trump, in the form of two impeachments, but neither resulted in anything of value, except to waste our time.
Here’s thinking months from now no one will be talking about the “motion to vacate” or the actions of the 20 conservatives to force Kevin McCarthy to reinstate long-observed House chamber rules at the beginning of the current Congress. Overreaction to change is an American political staple. Reality is often something different.
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