Reality bites: We don't currently have a House of Representatives

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

As the clown show in the House of Representatives stretches into its fourth day, a disturbing reality has begun to set in. By any functional definition of the institution, we currently do not actually have a House of Representatives. Under the long-standing rules of the House, no business can be conducted without a Speaker. That includes the swearing-in of all the members. (Not just the newly elected ones.) The terms of all of the previous members have ended, so until they are sworn in, there technically are no sitting members of the House. And until all of the non-members can figure out how to put someone in place as the Speaker, there will not be a House. The Senate is unable to do anything except internal housekeeping chores without the cooperation of the currently non-existent House, so the country currently does not have a legislative branch. I have frequently been guilty of making jokes about how Congress is at its best when it’s not in session because at least they can’t evaporate any more of our money or pass bad laws, but the reality is that this will quickly become a serious problem. (Associated Press)

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As Republicans continue to squabble over who will be the next speaker, there are essentially no members in the U.S. House of Representatives — only members-elect.

Without a speaker, none of the them can be sworn in, and the 118th Congress can’t convene or vote on any rules. Parliamentary procedure has been jettisoned in favor of controlled chaos. Members of both parties are unsure whether they can call votes or make motions on the floor because there is no speaker to rule on their requests. Committees can’t be formed and legislation can’t be passed.

“I don’t know what my status is,” said Democrat Ted Lieu of California. “I don’t know if I have health care, I don’t know if my staff get paid. We’re looking at all of that now because this hasn’t happened for 100 years.”

No serious person that I’m aware of actually believes that this situation will go on indefinitely. But if it lasts too much longer some serious threats to the nation’s stability will begin to loom on the horizon. For one thing, as was pointed out by The Hill last night, if the current majority can’t even manage to name a Speaker, what will happen when they vote on the debt limit later this year? If they similarly deadlock on that, we will quickly hit the country’s spending limit. After that, America would begin to default on its debts and the entire economy would quickly collapse in response. For that matter, they can’t really spend any money at the moment because all appropriation bills have to originate in the House. Stopping them from spending so much money is a longstanding conservative goal, but if the spending drops to zero, the government is basically out of business.

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So how does the stalemate end if the roughly twenty Republican holdouts refuse to blink? The non-members won’t vote to change the rules to allow a plurality to determine the next Speaker because that would hand the gavel back to the Democrats. McCarthy could win a majority if fifty Democrats voted present, but at least for the moment, what motivation would they have to do so? They’re sitting back, munching on popcorn, and enjoying watching the dysfunctional collapse of the GOP caucus. (Wholeheartedly backed by their cheering section in the corporate media.) The House would normally be able to eject any of its members as they see fit, so the Republican holdouts could be sent packing. But – again – they can’t currently do that because they aren’t allowed to vote on anything except naming the next Speaker.

Perhaps we’re overlooking what might be an integral question here. Is it time to do away with the position of the Speaker? Sadly, that can’t happen any time soon because it would require a Constitutional amendment to Article I Section 2. “The House of Representatives shall choose their speaker and other officers; and shall have the sole power of impeachment.”

That’s the only reference to the position of the Speaker in the entire document.  Of course, we wouldn’t have to remove the position entirely. The power of the Speaker is enshrined in the rules of the House, which can be changed by the members via a simple majority vote at any time. The role of the Speaker could be made more ceremonial and not such a dam across the river of the legislative process. Sadly, that won’t resolve the current logjam because, as noted above, there are currently no members available to vote on a rules change.

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This situation is going to end before too very long, though I’m not skilled enough as a prognosticator to tell you how. But when the end comes and the House gets back to its normal business, this week should force some long-needed consideration as to how the legislature conducts its affairs. This entire debacle is an embarrassment and is making us a laughing stock on the world stage.

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John Stossel 5:30 PM | July 13, 2024
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