Editorial: Musical Speakers

So around and around we go, without inspiration, without end. As the House of Representatives plows through another exasperating week, as much of the world goes up in flames and smoke, as the ice melts and the waters rise, we are witness to a peculiar natural phenomenon, the political version. And that is a snake eating its own tail.

It's hard not to consider this picture as the House Republicans goes about trying to elect a new Speaker when the old one, albeit an utterly uninspiring one, Kevin McCarthy, was more or less keeping the lights on, and mostly remembering to turn them off at night.

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America deserves better than the ridiculous spectacle that has been forced on it and on the world. And the world is taking notice.

Consider this from a recent Irish Times editorial: "For the first time in the history of the United States, the speaker of the House of Representatives was deposed last week when a motion to vacate passed with a majority of six in the 435-seat chamber. The removal of Kevin McCarthy just nine months after his election to the third most senior position in American political life illustrates yet again the strains which political dysfunction is placing on the country’s constitutional order.

"Defenders of first-past-the-post electoral systems in the US and UK argue that they act as a bulwark against extremism by ensuring the domination of two large mainstream parties. The counter-argument is that they can lead to the capture of a large party by a small, extremist rump. There is no better example of this than the current US Republican party.

"It took just eight Republican votes to dispose of McCarthy, a weak leader who had sown the seeds of his own destruction by effectively conceding an electoral veto to the extremists in his own ranks, led by Florida congressman Matt Gaetz. Having provided the gun, McCarthy cannot have been too surprised when Gaetz, a rabble-rousing Florida congressman who traffics in disinformation and far-right rhetoric, pulled the trigger.

"The resulting political disarray will dismay all who look to Washington for coherent leadership at a time of conflict in Europe and the Middle East."

Amid all this political disarray it was hard not to think of the Yeats line about the center being unable to hold.

And yet we had this from the Washington Post: ...."some speculate, self-proclaimed moderates could decide they have had enough. They could join Democrats to elect a compromise candidate — maybe Rep. Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.) — in a sort of unity governance arrangement. A group of Republicans would vote with Democrats to set rules for the remainder of this Congress (e.g., no shutdown, no subpoenas without minority-party support, no break in Ukraine funding, no impeachment nonsense)."

Well, thus far, that has not taken place though Congressman Lawler, who calls Pearl River home, might want to frame these words for future use.

Washington Post opinion columnist Karen Tumulty threw out this extended question: "Why does this keep happening? Why does the House keep finding itself in a situation in which a handful of clownish nihilists are calling the shots for their supposed leaders — and risking the economic stability of the country while they are at it?"

Continued Tumulty: "There are a couple of familiar forces that put the “chaos caucus” in charge: the Republicans’ razor-thin majority; the fact that Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is beholden to the tiny minority for the gavel that it took 15 ballots for him to claim — and thus to the extremism that has come to define the Republican Party in the Trump era."

About this "tiny minority" Tumulty posed another question: "To whom are these agents of havoc actually accountable?" And she then answers it: "A surprisingly small sliver of voters, it turns out."

Tumulty continues: "These days, only 82 of the 435 House districts across the country are competitive enough that both parties start out with a decent shot at winning, according to the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman.
"That is only half the number of swing districts that existed in 1999, and it has effectively eliminated much of the incentive that the two parties once had to find middle ground on contentious issues. Members of Congress know that playing to instincts and impulses of their populist bases are their surest tickets to reelection, and that they will have little protection if they don’t.

"You can blame aggressive gerrymandering, which plays a big role. But Wasserman and others say the greater driver of this realignment is a self-sorting of the electorate into like-minded communities, where Democratic voters are concentrated in cities that have turned deeper blue while Republicans are spread out across exurbs and rural areas that have become more reliably red.
"Whatever the reason, the reality is that the vast majority of congressional elections are decided in the primaries. And that, as it turns out, puts outsize power in the hands of a tiny minority of highly engaged and intense partisans who bother to show up and vote in those often overlooked contests. In midterm elections, fewer than 1 in 5 eligible voters cast their ballots in party primaries, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. The rest of the country sits home, and has to live with the consequences. And that means a tiny — and utterly unrepresentative — slice of Americans is deciding who gets a seat in the U.S. House."

So the problem is not entirely to be found under the Capitol Dome where a bunch of men - and they are mostly men - are squabbling over the Speaker's Gavel. The problem stretches far from Capitol Hill into every corner of America. The problem is most of us, our political laziness and indifference. Yikes!

Postscript: On Wednesday, October 25, House Republicans finally elected a new Speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana.