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Dysfunction and extremism: The failure of House Republicans as the opposition

| Friday, January 20, 2023

The 118th Congress has ushered in a divided federal government. The newly Republican-controlled House will amplify the staunch opposition displayed by the GOP since President Biden took office. Still, with Democrats in control of the Senate and the executive branch, Republicans are very much the minority party. With that in mind, let’s consider the role of an opposition party in a democracy and whether the GOP can meet those responsibilities. 

Lord Randolph Churchill, member of the UK Parliament and Winston Churchill’s son, said that “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose.” Even if Churchill wasn’t talking about the American political system, we’ve taken a page from that playbook. When in the minority, Democrats and Republicans alike campaign on a platform of opposing the other party. Democrats framed the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential election as a referendum on former President Trump, which heavily contributed to their victories. In the recent 2022 midterms, Republicans did the same maneuver against President Biden and the Democratic Party. 

On its face, the assessment that the opposition party’s sole duty is to oppose seems intuitive. The minority party should only concern itself with criticizing the party in power as a pathway to eventually becoming the new majority party. It doesn’t agree with the other party and doesn’t want to see its opponents succeed, so ridicule is the best option. The very nature of an opposition party invites a personality of antagonism and stonewalling. 

However, this understanding of an opposition party isn’t helpful for democracy. At its core, the duty of elected officials is to represent the interests of their constituents. This may often involve opposing the efforts of the other side, but it can also require cooperation on issues shared by both sides of the aisle. If the opposition party devotes its entire strategy to resisting the party in power, it displays itself merely as a nuisance, not as a legitimate alternative to governing. It consumes itself in the idea of opposition and fails to present a coherent platform or vision to the opposition’s own approach to governing. This strategy only serves partisan interests, not that of the nation. Instead of complete opposition, the role of the minority party is to selectively oppose. It should certainly criticize the party in power on issues they disagree on, but also cooperate on issues both sides share an interest in. That way, the opposition creates a clear picture of its governing strategy for voters.

Unfortunately, House Republicans appear to be following the initial approach to opposition. Their plan on holding sweeping investigations into the Biden administration and possible impeachments reveals a strategy of blocking Democrats at every turn, not selective opposition. While this strategy of mere opposition provides no clear picture of what a Republican government would pursue, it does reveal their inability to govern. Within the first few weeks of a Republican-majority House, we can see two ways that highlight the ineffective and potentially dangerous governing style of the GOP. 

First, the dysfunction of House Republicans demonstrates that party in-fighting has bled into governing. The prolonged election of Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to Speaker of the House is a clear indication of this. Despite being nominated by his party’s conference, McCarthy failed to secure enough votes prior to the new Congress convening. Following concessions to the far-right faction of his party, McCarthy was elevated to the speakership after a historic 15 rounds of voting. McCarthy’s inability to create a majority before the vote demonstrates the difficulty of building a winning coalition in his conference. If Republicans were still in the minority, this wouldn’t be a problem. But as the majority party, continued failure to coalesce majorities threatens the House’s ability to pass crucial legislation. 

This has dangerous implications for the country. For instance, as the U.S. hits the debt ceiling, there’s more pressure for the House to increase the federal government’s borrowing limit. However, infighting within House Republicans amidst McCarthy’s promise to not raise the debt ceiling will likely ensue a financial crisis. If Republicans somehow manage to avert an economic disaster, they still risk a similar outcome with voting on 12 individual spending packages rather than an omnibus bill, another one of McCarthy’s concessions. Republicans have to pass each of these bills to avoid a government shutdown, an unlikely outcome with a slim majority and hostile opposition within the party.

Second, House Republicans’ toleration of extremism threatens our democratic institutions and well-being of the nation. Possibly one of the most significant concessions by McCarthy was to appoint three members of the Freedom Caucus to the Rules Committee, which decides how bills are considered. The caucus contains many of the anti-McCarthy House Republicans who opposed him in the speaker vote. Handing the power to control which bills make it to the House floor over to his party’s radical faction will invite dangerous legislation while blocking essential bills from being voted on. 

Moreover, reappointing members like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ) back to committees signifies the GOP’s lack of accountability among its members. Greene was removed for spreading (often antisemitic) conspiracy theories. Gosar was ousted for sharing a video depicting him killing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). We’re witnessing the beginning of a House GOP that tolerates extremism and violence, which never leads to productive governing.

My hope was that the House GOP would use its control of the House in a meaningful way. Rather than merely score political points or oppose for the sake of opposing, I aspired for the spirit of bipartisanship modeled under the previous Congress. However, it appears that instead of providing a meaningful opposition, House Republicans have selected a strategy that won’t benefit Americans. We’ll continue to see a party that lacks the unity and goodwill to govern in a meaningful way, if it can govern at all. 

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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