Opinion by Julian Zelizer
(CNN) — House Republicans burned down the House yesterday.
The chaos caucus achieved its goal Tuesday, bringing Capitol Hill to its knees and ensuring that extremism, dysfunction and divisiveness won the day.
Now-former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who almost guaranteed his ouster when he gave away so much of his power in exchange for being voted into the House’s top position in January, committed the cardinal sin of engaging in a bipartisan deal to keep the government open — something that in other decades would have simply been routine. A small faction of his fellow Republicans used the offense as a reason to vote him out as speaker and thereby grind Congress to a halt.
Like Speakers Newt Gingrich, John Boehner and Paul Ryan before him, McCarthy has become one more Republican leader who believed that he would be able to contain the destabilizing forces that he courted and emboldened within his coalition only to fall victim to them instead. He goes down in the history books as the first speaker to be voted out of his position after he was swallowed by some of the same revolutionaries whom he appeased, as well as a so-called moderate, Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who revealed her true colors by going along with the reckless decision to dethrone him.
With funding for the federal government set to run out in mid-November, we are in uncharted territory. Even Gingrich, one of the pioneers of smashmouth partisanship within the Party of Lincoln, published an op-ed in The Washington Post Tuesday calling on the GOP to expel the leader of the removal vote, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. The firebrand who taught generations of fellow conservatives how to abandon guardrails, someone who once stood as one of former President Donald Trump’s staunchest supporters, finally found something that “crosses the line.” When Gingrich says something has crossed the line, that says a lot.
The Republicans still in power, meanwhile, seem to have no idea how to rebuild what they destroyed, so are instead aiming fire on Democrats. Upon taking over at this turbulent moment for the nation, the new interim speaker, North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, decided to prioritize kicking some senior Democrats out of their office space.
Just after 6 pm on Tuesday, as elected officials should have been scrambling to figure out how to stabilize a fundamentally destabilized Washington, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi received an email informing her that the Republicans were going to reassign her coveted Capitol office space “for speaker office use. Please vacate the space tomorrow.” (She retains an office in one of the other buildings in the Capitol complex.)
In other words, the GOP demonstrated that they would not hesitate to go after Democrats with hammer and tong. The story also offered a good distraction from the actual news of the day: that the GOP had deposed their leader in a fit of pique without any plan for what comes next. (Some Republicans who voted to keep McCarthy were also miffed at what their far-right wing has wrought.)
Kicking Democrats out of office space shouldn’t come as a total surprise. After all, there’s a long history of the majority party acting roughly with the political minority. During the era of Democratic dominance on Capitol Hill from the 1930s to 1990s, Republicans often complained about how they were treated, citing problems like a lack of decent office space and invitations to committee meetings. Indeed, Gingrich made these sorts of complaints central as he rose to power in the 1980s while railing against a broken Democratic establishment.
But this time is different. McCarthy was behind the move to kick Pelosi out of her office space, two Republican sources told CNN, and Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves told reporters that the office is for the preceding speaker, who is now McCarthy. A source close to Pelosi, however, said it was retaliation for Democrats voting against McCarthy in the speaker’s vote Tuesday. McCarthy and McHenry did not respond to requests for comment, but Graves proceeded to put the blame on Democrats for voting McCarthy out. “I don’t know what they’re complaining about. They created this situation,” Graves said.
So we now are witnessing what look like acts of petty partisan vengeance after the Democrats reasonably decided not to bail McCarthy out by voting for him as speaker when all of his own party members wouldn’t — a position the Democrats should never have been put in.
This partisan tit-for-tat over office space is only a distraction from the major problem the nation is now confronting and an effort by Republicans to shift the blame for a situation entirely of their making to the other side of the aisle. It is incumbent on reporters, elected officials and others not to take their eye off the ball. This story cannot become a mechanism for Republicans to deflect attention from the consequences of what they inflicted on the country on Tuesday — an earthquake whose aftershocks will likely continue for the coming months.
Given that it’s unclear how any member of Congress can get majority support for a stable term as speaker, the crisis that unfolded this week will likely get worse. When Republicans do find someone, that legislator will probably be even more desperate to placate the hard right, rendering any common ground nearly impossible to find.
When one party abandons any sense of rules, norms and safeguards, the result is to put the entire nation into an extremely dangerous place. We have reached a point where citizens cannot rely on their leaders to make the most basic decisions for the country to function, such as funding the government. For Democratic champions of bipartisanship who have continued to believe they can work with the GOP, the actions by the House should throw cold water on many of their hopes.
Creating chaos was the point for House Republican extremists, and they have achieved their goal. Unfortunately, until more Republican step forward and ask of their colleagues, “Have you no sense of decency?,” the challenges facing the House and Senate won’t get solved.
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