Like most of you, I was alternately entertained and horrified by the shambolic display of Republican chaos at the opening of Congress. Entertained because it’s a treat to see pomp and circumstance enter the arena with its collective pants around its ankles; horrified by the prospect of this chaos bringing down the world’s financial structure this fall when the debt ceiling comes up for a vote.
But I saw something else: another example of how in Washington a minority — sometimes a very small one — can frustrate the will of a majority. Even if we understand that our system was purposely designed with anti-majoritarian rules and principles, it’s remarkable how often the few can overwhelm the many, to disastrous effect.
The House of Representatives is supposed to be the place where the majority rules by majority vote, where the power of a state is roughly equivalent to its population. It’s supposed to be a contrast to the Senate, which is laden with protection against the unruly mob. That’s where a minority can filibuster a bill to death, where a single member can put a “hold” on an appointment, where the body gives equal votes to the least and most populous of states. That’s where even a party with 58 or 59 votes can find its legislative hopes dashed by the need for 60 on virtually every bill.
So what happened Tuesday in “the people’s house?”
Members who constitute less than 5 percent of the chamber, and less than 10 percent of the Republican caucus, brought the House to a standstill.
Kevin McCarthy, who is increasingly coming to resemble Charlie Brown on the pitcher’s mound, managed to win 85 percent of the House GOP vote last November. That’s a pretty impressive demonstration of the conference’s sentiment. But because the GOP majority in the House is so thin, only five defectors out of 222 were needed to throw a cloud over McCarthy’s selection as speaker. Conservative hard-liners then made a series of demands — which McCarthy was largely inclined to meet — that would cede even more power to an ever-smaller cohort. (One of those demands would have given a single member the power to call a vote for the removal of the speaker — the very power that helped drive previous speakers into retirement.)
Did it matter that the great majority of House Republicans did not embrace these demands? Did it matter that the overwhelming majority of them wanted to hand McCarthy the speaker’s gavel? No. With the determination of a hostage-taker, this little band of willful men and women managed to leverage their 5 percent of the vote into at least temporarily paralyzing Congress.
Well, maybe this is not all that surprising. One of the striking aspects of our current politics is the growing disdain of some in the Republican universe for the whole idea that majorities get to govern.
For instance, you might think that Republicans are concerned about their inability to win the presidential popular vote. Once upon a time, they won it more often than they lost; from 1952-1988, the GOP won it seven out of ten times. Since then, they have won it once, and lost it seven times. True, that is not how presidents are elected, but rather than trying to broaden their share of the vote, Republicans prefer to talk about “voter integrity,” and raise questions about those voters in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit. One top Wisconsin GOPer even said that if you don’t count Milwaukee or Madison, Republicans would win every statewide contest. Behind these “voter integrity” proposals is the unspoken conviction that “the wrong people” are voting.
Among some thinkers on the right, there is substantial support for the idea of an “independent state legislature,” with power to draw the lines, set the rules (and perhaps even cast the vote) for elections, that cannot be challenged by courts, or even voters who want independent redistricting commissions. It’s a notion that may be too much even for the aggressive conservative super-majority on the Supreme Court, though it’s too early to tell exactly how the court will rule on the issue.
We don’t know yet whether the current smash up in the House will cause an aggrieved majority of House Republicans to finally say “enough” to the rebels, who are surely eager to cause more mayhem after this episode. Could they be denied committee assignments? Is it possible that a different minority — the ever-shrinking band of genuinely moderate Republicans — will join the Democrats to elect a speaker of their own? (It’s unlikely, of course, and the lesson of what happened to pro-impeachment House Republicans does not suggest a happy ending for this tactic).
What we do know is that we are being taught another lesson in just how fragile majorities — and our very system of governance — can be, especially if they are challenged by a minority shrewd enough and committed enough to attack their vulnerabilities.