Speaker of the House gridlock illuminates slippage of American democracy  

By Sophie Foster 

Opinion Editor  

This article was originally published in the Oct. 26, 2023 digital edition of The Elm.

Mere weeks after the country veered dangerously close to its third government shutdown in five years, the federal government is once again embedded in turbulence: this time, as the House of Representatives deliberates on its new Speaker of the House.  

Former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy was forced to step down on Tuesday, Oct. 3 as a result of ongoing party infighting, according to Reuters. This marks the first time in American history that a sitting Speaker was removed from the position, and it required eight Republican representatives join the entirety of the House Democrats in voting against McCarthy’s retention of the role.   

Amidst the aforementioned threat of a total government shutdown, Republicans in the House presently face difficulty in aligning their party’s federal financial priorities, thus accounting for the willingness of some to take this unprecedented step. Now, nearly a month later, the conflict presses on as representatives struggle to land on a new Speaker.  

According to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich for The Hill, the lack of agreement presents the danger of settling on a Speaker just to revert “back into the same mess” in a few weeks when the misalignment inevitably persists.  

Rep. Jim Jordan secured his party’s nomination when House Majority Leader Steve Scalise dropped out of the race for Speakership, but Jordan failed to earn the 217 votes necessary to ascend to the position. At present, nine Republicans are in the mix for the role.  

According to USA Today, this tedium is testing voter patience. Recent polls suggest 67% of voters believe a Speaker should be elected as soon as possible in consideration of decision-making controversy regarding wartime aid and preventative government shutdown legislation.  

Bipartisanship being a rare feat in contemporary American political dialogues, the functional consensus marked by USA Today indicates that the decision needs to be made with some urgency if the support of the public is to be attained.  

“How often do you see Democrats, Republicans, and independents agree on anything in D.C.?” Director of Suffolk’s Political Research Center David Paleologos said for USA Today. “Look at every demographic: gender, geography, age, race, education level, income, political philosophy, even those who trust CNN [versus] Fox News. They are all speaking the same seven words in unison: ‘Elect a speaker and do your job.’” 

The pool from which that election will select the next Speaker is relatively broad, featuring candidates from a range of states at all levels of the Republican party’s political spectrum.  

According to ABC News, those candidates are Rep. Jack Bergman of Michigan, Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, Rep. Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania, Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama, Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia, and Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas.  

Their platforms, while rarely alike in scope, share one piece of common ground: an intentionally vague message.  

Chosen positions include “advanc[ing the] conservative agenda,” “bringing [the] conference together and get[ting] back to work,” and “do[ing] what’s best for our nation and…steady[ing] the ship for the 118th Congress.”  

With such ambiguous intentions, it seems likely that this internal division will shape the coming months and years of lawmaking and legislative work in the House, regardless of whether or not a Speaker is agreed on with tactful haste.  

The United States is not new to stuttering in the process of coming to decisions at the federal level. Voter confidence in American democratic practice will only continue to erode as major nationwide challenges are not effectively resolved.  

Particularly considering that Republican leaders — most infamously, former President Donald Trump — have spent recent years sowing skeptic response in the wake of their dangerous incompetence, it is likely that no Speaker could be chosen that will adequately mend the dissolution of respectability.  

House Republicans’ inability to land even on a Speaker does not evoke feelings of ease with the looming date of Nov. 17 — the deadline for them to reach a government spending compromise to avoid a shutdown when the temporary funding bill that averted one in October expires.  

If this tumult allows for a government shutdown, it will be the first under President Joe Biden’s tenure. According to CBS News, there have been 14 government shutdowns, all after 1980.  

This statistic is damning, in no small part because nine of those shutdowns occurred between 1981 and 1990 during ongoing geopolitical conflict between the U.S. and Russia. In 2013, President Barack Obama’s administration saw the first shutdown in almost 20 years, and their likelihood has only increased as divisions are allowed to prosper.  

President Donald Trump’s administration saw two near-consecutive shutdowns in 2018, including the longest to date, which lasted for 34 days. The conflict between American lawmakers snowballing to mirror levels of uncertainty not seen since the Cold War paints an alarming picture of the health of the American sociopolitical landscape. 

The public read the writing on the walls years ago — it is time their leaders started reading it, as well, and found conclusions reflective of popular interest.  

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

Photo caption: Former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy was ousted from the position earlier this month. 

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