The Devil’s Advocate Special Edition: Debating the Ouster of Speaker McCarthy
Context: On Sept 30, with no time to spare, Congress passed an appropriations bill in bipartisan fashion, averting a government shutdown for at least 45 days that would have seen an estimated 3.5 million federal workers either furloughed or working without pay. In response to the bill’s passage with Democratic votes, among other disagreements, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) initiated a motion to vacate the chair of (oust) the House Speaker. The motion passed passage on Oct 3 with eight Republican and all present Democratic votes , ousting Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). This marked the first of such removals in US history. In this special edition, Gaughan will argue in favor of the decision to oust McCarthy, while Granahan will argue against.
Both hold the positions they represent to varying extents.
Republican moderates in Congress have voiced interest in withdrawing from vital organs of bipartisanship like the Problem Solvers Caucus, in order to spite their Democratic colleagues who voted in favor of the motion. Yet another controversial speakership election suspends the activities of the House, including its ability to negotiate and vote on appropriations packages to keep the government funded. Self-serving members of Congress have worked to position internal divisions to pour beyond the walls of the Capitol.
And yet, we should keep ourselves from falling into the trap of the GOP’s intra-party civil war. Ostensibly, the immediate impetus behind Rep. Gaetz’s introduction of the motion to vacate was former Speaker McCarthy’s support for a bipartisan government-funding stopgap. McCarthy allies have suggested that on this ground, the termination of his speakership should be viewed as an attack from the right and betrayal by the left. But a clearer look at his tenure and behavior in office prove that one necessary stance could hardly render McCarthy a noble martyr.
This past January, McCarthy took the speaker’s chair after fifteen rounds of majority-requiring ballots, the most taken to elect a speaker since 1859. Speculation over a noble withdrawal after initial defeats to allow the House to begin its business proved fruitless, as he prioritized his own crusade for the gavel over the commencement of business in the 118th Congress. The cost of his accession to power after such a tense fight, predictably, proved his convictions.
As suggested by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries prior to the vote on the Gaetz motion, the nature of the speakership has long been left to the party the American electorate has granted a majority, leaving it to act as a stable coalition alongside a reasonable opposition. Historically, on this matter aisle-crossing is simply negligible, because it is imperative that any legislature be led by someone who commands its legitimacy. To do so, they must first hold the support of their own faction within. McCarthy could not. His vulnerability was in significant part based in broken deals and pugnacity, as disgruntled supporters-turned-adversaries subsequently explained.
Our 55th Speaker was deposed for his foolish empowerment and frequent submission to radicalism, along with endless heel-turns and hypocrisy on everything from funding a vital ally’s fight for its sovereignty, to the democratic procedures of impeachment inquiries, to opposing corrupt politicians in Congress. He denounced hatred and antisemitism in the opposing party, only to bolster its mouthpieces in his own, politicizing it for his own political survival.
In the end, his efforts at appeasement failed. His brashness presented itself, encouraging Gaetz and other fellow Republicans to “Bring it on.” They did. And from beginning to end, the responsibility for his fate is his own.
Supporters may argue his fall followed a dismissal of radical partisanship in favor of common sense. They are mistaken. McCarthy built his coalition, and the responsibility for its instability lies squarely at his feet. McCarthy did not fall because he stood up to the extreme; he fell because he bowed but would not kneel.
In September of 1987, then-recently retired House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) stated his belief that Ronald Reagan was the worst American president he had ever witnessed. And yet, many who were alive during the Reagan administration hold a revisionist viewpoint of O’Neill’s speakership, postulating that O’Neill, a progressive stalwart, and Reagan, the father of modern American conservatism, were fast friends. This can be explained by the fact that, although they didn’t like each other and could barely even tolerate each other, O’Neill and Reagan worked with each other. The two worked together to implement crucial legislation such as the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984, which allowed individuals with disabilities to vote by absentee ballot. Additionally, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which gave amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants and allowed them to become members in the American workforce.
Kevin McCarthy tried to do what Tip O’Neill’s legacy is arguably defined by. Faced with the prospect of a devastating government shutdown that would leave millions without food assistance, throw a wrench into the air travel industry, and delay the paychecks of servicemembers actively defending the United States, McCarthy committed the gravest of offenses in modern politics: he dared to cooperate with the other party. One day before the government was set to shut down, McCarthy pushed the stopgap through the House. Due to McCarthy’s openness to the Democratic priority of preserving disaster relief funding, the bill was able to pass by a massive margin of 335-91.
When a political leader is able to put their country and their constituents before their party and compromise with those they disagree with, they should be praised, not punished. But even though House Democrats achieved their goal of guaranteeing disaster relief funding while averting a government shutdown, they welcomed the challenge to Kevin McCarthy’s speakership with open arms.
For his willingness to buck the party line, Kevin McCarthy will not be remembered as a skillful political realist and compromiser like Tip O’Neill. Instead, he will be remembered as the only speaker to be ousted from office in American history, with his fall coming at the hands of Democratic representatives, all of whom voted against him. As of now, who will be the next speaker is unknown; Kevin Hern (R-OK), Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Steve Scalise (R-LA) are the primary speaker candidates. What is known is that, when a government shutdown looms again in 45 days, the next speaker will not be willing to compromise with Democrats to the extent that McCarthy did, lest they meet the same fate as their predecessor.
Every Democrat in the House of Representatives has demonstrated that they are unwilling to work with Kevin McCarthy. Perhaps that is warranted to those who see the R next to McCarthy’s name as a non-starter. But in the absence of any kind of concurrence with McCarthy, the Democrats of the House have instead shown their willingness to work with Republican extremists like Matt Gaetz in their mission to chip away at the integrity and reliability of the United States government.