The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

The Paralyzed House and the Triumph of 21st-Century Politics

AP Photo / Alex Brandon

In a 2020 interview with Vanity Fair, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) argued that in the 21st century, “stagecraft is statecraft.” Now, he has written his magnum opus. Banding together with seven other Republican malcontents and every House Democrat, Gaetz used the rarely-invoked “motion to vacate the chair” to toss Kevin McCarthy from the House Speakership on Oct. 3. As of this writing, more than two weeks on, the position remains open. The People’s House is paralyzed. It is the apotheosis of our broken politics, a defining moment in an era of warped incentives and institutional decay. Last year, in these pages, I wondered whether our legislature might be “great again.” The 118th Congress has answered: most certainly not.

The move against McCarthy arose from the most fundamental of Congressional fights: appropriations. All summer, the same ultra-conservatives who deposed McCarthy opposed bills to fund the government for the 2024 fiscal year, putting up roadblocks and shifting their demands, per The New York Times.

Months of delay resulted in a major backlog: with government funding set to expire on Oct. 1, the House had passed only four of the twelve required appropriations bills — and each of those were dead on arrival in the Democrat-led Senate. Unable to convince the right flank of his caucus to vote for any continuing resolution (CR), a stopgap bill to fund the government while the appropriations process finished, McCarthy looked across the aisle and passed a CR with Democratic support, funding the government for six more weeks and avoiding a shutdown.

That apostasy — bipartisanship — cost McCarthy his Speakership. It clarifies the sorry state of American political affairs: in the current moment, the House of Representatives is basically ungovernable. It is a simple fact that any law passed during the 118th Congress will require Democratic support; Democrats control the Senate and the White House. But the right flank has drawn their line in the sand: pass an appropriations bill with Democratic support, and they’ll decapitate their leader.

Now, after more than two weeks, we find ourselves in an even worse place. House GOP infighting has devolved from a legislative battle to a personnel dispute as the conference remains unable to elect a Speaker. Rep. Mike Flood (R-NE) summed it up best in an interview with his hometown paper, The Lincoln Journal Star: “There are days I wonder if Jesus Christ could get 217 votes in the Republican conference.” The House GOP — and, by extension, the House of Representatives — lacks a governing majority. It shouldn’t surprise us. Indeed, our sorry state is a triumph of 21st-century politics.

Gerrymandering, the primary system, campaign finance law and the modern media benefit congressional show-horses at the expense of the workhorses. Partisan redistricting means that most Representatives will never face a competitive general election — if they lose, it will be in a primary. Members are pushed to the ideological extremes as the most motivated — and, often, the most partisan — voters decide their political fate.

The campaign finance reforms of the 2000s have also benefited the most ideologically “pure” candidates. Limits on individual contributions to campaigns and party committees have increased the importance of small-dollar fundraising. These small-dollar donors are the same people who vote in primaries: the most committed, ideological and extreme. The money game, too, pushes politicians today toward the fringes of the political spectrum.

And how does a politician make himself known to these primary voters and small-dollar donors? It’s easy: he gets in front of a TV camera as much as possible and says things so outlandish that people have no choice but to talk about him. There’s a reason, indeed, that Matt Gaetz’s podcast was initially called “Hot Takes with Matt Gaetz.” Columnist Jonah Goldberg has accurately termed our modern Congress a “parliament of pundits,” according to The Los Angeles Times. Success is measured not by bills passed but by cable news spots booked.

For the rebels, the McCarthy ouster was, above all, an attention-seeking exercise. Look no further than the self-fashioned “scarlet letter” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) wore after her vote to vacate. One can hardly blame her and her fellow turncoats. Attention is the currency of this political and media age. They might have paralyzed the legislative branch, but their campaign coffers will be full. And they’ll probably be reelected — by a lot, too. Therein lies the problem of 21st-century politics. And therein lies its triumph. 

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