The ouster of former Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy (R-California) from his position this week has been described by President Joe Biden as symbolic of the “poisonous” politics that exist within the legislative chamber. But several historians and political scientists say that the unprecedented action is demonstrative of a deeper problem, showcasing an erosion of American democracy.
Academics and experts on governmental operations told The Washington Post this week that the vote to vacate the speakership had less to do with partisan politics in Washington and is more emblematic of an institutional decay that could result in long-lasting harm to the body politic.
The experts point out that it only took a small handful of Republican lawmakers on the party’s fringe — representing just 1.8 percent of the U.S. voting public — to remove McCarthy from the speakership. No speaker in U.S. history has ever been removed by a “motion to vacate” vote, and while the mechanism should exist to allow lawmakers to change leadership when needed, the way in which the situation unfolded is worrisome, they say.
“We are watching a very small number of folks from the House Republican conference have an outsize role in promoting a lot of congressional dysfunction and fiscal dysfunction,” Laura Blessing, senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, told the Post. “This is a move for volatility and not a move to pass legislation.”
“If you want to know what it looks like when democracy is in trouble, this is what it looks like. It should set off alarm bells that something is not right,” said Daniel Ziblatt, professor of government at Harvard University.
Although the motion to remove McCarthy may have originated from policy differences, that shouldn’t result in a constant questioning of how the government functions, said Mark Medish, co-founder of Keep Our Republic, a nonpartisan civics organization. “We are on the road to unraveling as a republic,” he told the Post.
“If American democracy is already suffering and weak from various maladies, this unruly crisis in the House is just going to kick it a little further in that direction,” opined Harvard Kennedy School professor Alex Keyssar. “You are taking a set of institutions and you are weakening them and then pointing to their weakness.”
Multiple issues led to this outcome, and to the continued dysfunction of the House overall, these experts maintain, including an electoral system that incentivizes pandering to fringe voters with extremist viewpoints, as well as extraordinary gerrymandering of districts that makes it nearly impossible for Congress to be truly representative.
Some conservatives are trying to cast Democratic lawmakers as the problem, noting that the entirety of that conference in the House voted for McCarthy’s removal.
However, Democrats’ votes against McCarthy should have been expected, as his views (and those of any future GOP lawmaker who eventually wins the speakership) aren’t in line with their legislative objectives, making their votes more representative of what they and their constituents want overall. McCarthy also had the opportunity to offer concessions to Democrats in exchange for votes in his favor.
McCarthy’s deal-making at the start of his speakership with far right lawmakers also diminished the institution’s ability to function.
“McCarthy spent months struggling with many of his most radical members. They threatened to try to oust him. Then they did,” MSNBC producer Steve Benen wrote in a recent column. “If Republicans are looking for who was responsible, they need only to look around at their next conference meeting.”
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