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Viewpoint

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

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 bziegler@nd.edu.

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

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Viewpoint

Will Kevin McCarthy be Speaker of the House next year?

Despite pre-election predictions of a “red wave” that didn’t manifest at the polls, Republicans will emerge from the midterms with only a slight majority in the House of Representatives. Based on the latest reports, it appears that the GOP will only enjoy a 5-seat majority in the House. President Biden joins the list of exceptions to the historic rule that a president’s first midterm election is a disaster. With an average seat loss of 28 since World War II and 45 for the last 4 Democratic presidents, the president’s situation is much more positive than some anticipated.  

Still, even with a relatively good outcome, Biden and Democrats should expect gridlock as a Republican-controlled House will stonewall their agenda. Even with a slim majority, Republicans can disrupt the Democrats’ goals by stalling legislation, conducting hearings and more. One major factor in how a GOP majority will affect the Biden administration is the leadership on both sides of the aisle. On the Democratic side, we’re already seeing major departures as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced they would not seek leadership positions in the coming term. With that, a new generation of Democratic leaders will usher in an era of new leadership for the Democratic caucus. 

A key question is whether the notably toxic relationship between Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Pelosi will spill over into the new Democratic torchbearers. That assumes, though, that McCarthy will himself remain in leadership. His caucus did vote to endorse him as Speaker of the House, the most powerful position in the chamber. However, with a vote tally of 188-31 and a challenge from protest candidate Representative Andy Biggs (R-AZ), McCarthy’s path to the speakership is anything but certain.

Most people likely think that you need at least 218 votes, or half of the chamber, to be elected Speaker. However, the process is slightly more nuanced. It’s true that you need a majority of votes for the speakership, but that majority is based only on the number of votes cast “for a person by name.” This means that only votes for specific individuals are considered in the calculations. If a representative doesn’t vote or simply votes “present,” their vote doesn’t go towards the majority necessary to be Speaker. For example, if 8 of the 435 representatives don’t vote for an actual person (which happened in 2021), then you actually need 214 votes for the speakership. 

With these rules in mind, the concern for McCarthy isn’t that he failed to receive 218 votes among his party members. There’s a precedent for not receiving a majority in your conference but still being elected Speaker in the official House vote. In 2015, former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) was nominated with 200 votes before garnering 236 votes on the House floor. In 2019, Speaker Pelosi earned 203 votes in the Democratic caucus’s internal vote that expanded to 220 on the House floor. The issue for McCarthy, though, is that he doesn’t enjoy the substantial majorities that Ryan and Pelosi had for their elections. 

Assuming every representative votes for an individual, McCarthy can only afford to lose 4 votes before his speakership chances are in jeopardy. Unfortunately for him, 5 Republican representatives have already publicly announced they won’t be voting for McCarthy: Biggs, Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Bob Good (R-VA), Ralph Norman (R-SC), and Matt Rosendale (R-MT). Even worse, an additional 15 Republicans have voiced privately that they won’t vote for the current Republican leader. On that basis alone, McCarthy can’t be Speaker. If these 20 Republicans don’t vote or vote “present,” McCarthy would need 208 votes to be Speaker, which is 6 less than if the other 202 Republicans voted for him. 

If McCarthy can’t secure his speakership prior to the official vote in January, it would throw the House into turmoil. It’d be the first time since 1923 that a vote for speaker consisted of multiple ballots. Over the course of two days and nine ballots, then-Speaker Frederick Gillett (R-MA) struck a deal with Progressive Republicans to secure his re-election as Speaker. A similar situation could be repeated in 2023. Members of the House Freedom Caucus have expressed interest in changing House rules and procedures in exchange for their support of McCarthy. 

An unlikely, although possible, scenario is that Democrats manage to elect their own nominee for Speaker despite a GOP majority. With 213 seats, Democrats only need 11 Republicans to abstain from voting before they have enough votes themselves to elect a Speaker. Even some moderate Republicans could break from the party line and join the Democrats. McCarthy has recently warned about this potential outcome as a way to galvanize votes among Republicans.

Even if McCarthy becomes Speaker, as top Republicans project despite the mathematical hurdles in the way, the question remains whether he can control the Republican caucus. With a narrow majority and a substantial number of representatives spewing undemocratic, extremist beliefs such as election denial and conspiracy theories, it’s unclear if McCarthy can keep his party focused on a clear agenda. A McCarthy speakership would be defined by constantly balancing the Trump and moderate wings of his roster.  

We won’t know who the Speaker will be until January when the new Congress is in session. Until then, though, we can rest assured that the race for Speaker will be as interesting as it is uncertain.

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 bziegler@nd.edu.

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

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News

‘We have the exact wrong fiscal policy’: Paul Ryan criticizes inflation response

Paul Ryan knew it was time to move on after 20 years in the House of Representatives. Two terms as the youngest speaker of the House since 1869 was enough for Ryan, who did not seek re-election in 2019.

“My last two terms were Speaker of the House, which is such a consuming job that it really took me away from my family so much more than I really wanted to be away,” Ryan said in an interview with The Observer. “I had three kids in or entering high school at the time, and I knew if I only saw my kids on Sundays, I just wasn’t going to have the kind of relationship I needed or wanted.”

Now, Ryan guest lectures at Notre Dame and serves on the board for the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO). Teaching at Notre Dame was appealing for Ryan after he left Capitol Hill, having grown up a Notre Dame fan in an Irish Catholic household that saw two of his brothers attend the University.

“I’ve been coming to games here since I was 10 years old,” he said.

In addition to teaching at Notre Dame, Ryan currently does additional policy work for the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank. But after 20 years in public sector economics, Ryan made sure to branch out and learn how businesses “actually work and grow.” He is now a partner at Solamere Capital, a private equity firm, and also serves as vice chairman of Teneo, a CEO advisory firm. Upon his retirement from Congress, he launched an anti-poverty foundation in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin.

“In Congress, I always thought it was important to do multiple things in your life,” Ryan said of his portfolio of enterprises.

Three years after he left Congress, Ryan said he does not miss the “performance politics” that are growing increasingly prominent. Instead of working to formulate and negotiate actual policy solutions, politicians today choose to “entertain” in the culture war in an attempt to get famous fast, he said.

“I agree with conservatives on the culture war, but I’m not a culture warrior. I don’t like inflaming [the] culture war because it just polarizes,” he said. “I do think you should take a stand against ridiculous, woke extremes, but I don’t think it’s great to try to politically profit off of these things, because all you end up doing is polarizing the country.”

There are still policymakers in Congress who care about making good policy, he said, but the culture war “entertainment artists” overshadow them. If he were in office right now, he said his number one priority would be fighting inflation.

Ryan said the economy is on the cusp of a recession. The federal government has been fueling inflation by spending, threatening businesses with higher taxes and raising taxes on businesses, he said.

“We have the exact wrong fiscal policy right now. This thing is not the Inflation Reduction Act, it’s sort of the opposite,” Ryan said of the package signed into law in August.

Although he said the Federal Reserve responded to the pandemic well, they were too late to respond to inflation, he added.

“They’re playing catch up. They were late. They should have been stopping the asset purchases earlier. Money supply was too high too fast for too long,” Ryan said.

Ryan said he does not know when the economy will start to significantly improve. The Federal Reserve will keep raising interest rates to about 4 or 4.25% and hold them there, he predicted. And with the war in Ukraine triggering an energy crisis in Europe and China experiencing economic struggles, Ryan expects a global recession to occur down the road.

While President Joe Biden currently mulls running for re-election in 2024, Ryan said Biden “missed the moment of being a centrist” during his term and has instead inflamed the polarization between the two parties. He explained that many Republican-leaning suburban voters voted for Biden because they disliked former President Donald Trump and expected Biden to govern from the center-left.

By catering to the progressive left, Biden passed on an opportunity to work across the aisle to put together deals, he said. As a result, populism has become more pronounced in U.S. politics, he added, and polarization is preventing major progress from occuring.

“Nothing is getting done that is substantial. No big problems are getting solved, and they just are trying to stick to their wish list of progressive things,” Ryan said, specifically referencing immigration and inflation.

The Republican party has also seen its “center of gravity” shift farther toward the extreme as well, he said.

“We have the same problem in our party, so I understand the pressure. I know very well,” he said. “But [Biden] succumbed to it.”

Contact Ryan at rpeters5@nd.edu