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“And if, at this time next week Kevin McCarthy is still speaker of the House, it will be because the Democrats bailed him out and he can be their speaker, not mine,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz declared on ABC’s “This Week.”

Pretty much everything you need to know about the House GOP’s dysfunction can be extrapolated from Gaetz’s petulant promise, which he made good on when he filed a motion to oust McCarthy Monday evening.

The founders intended the speaker to be the second most powerful constitutional office, after the presidency. (Vice presidents, while second in the line of presidential succession, have almost no formal power outside of breaking Senate ties, and of recent relevance, counting electoral ballots after a presidential election.) But the framers didn’t provide much guidance on how the job should work. A handful cast themselves as apolitical facilitators. Schuyler Colfax, who held the job during and just after the Civil War, said he had “come to this chair to administer [the] rules, but not as a partisan.”

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Over time, the job became unavoidably partisan. Speakers must be elected by a majority of members, and it would be bizarre if those votes didn’t come from the speaker’s party. That’s McCarthy’s dilemma. While he nominally has a five-seat majority, the House GOP is better understood as split in two, with an amorphous minority of self-styled rebels. Labeling this rump is difficult. They’d say they’re the “conservative base” of the party, but the word “conservative” is contestable given their radical bent and their ideological and fiscal inconstancy depending on whether Donald Trump is president.

Determined to make the perfect the enemy of the good, they want to dictate outcomes a majority of the House will not vote for. Because they lack numerical support, they try to leverage potential crises — defaults on the national debt, government shutdowns, including the cliffhanger over the weekend — to extract legislative concessions they can’t win on the merits.

The rebels’ specific goals — some of which I have sympathy for in the abstract — really don’t matter because the real goal is to cast themselves as tragic heroes taking on “the establishment,” specifically the Republican establishment. Cutting deals that earn partial victories or avoid total disasters amounts to capitulation. Going down fighting not only proves purity, it avoids the responsibility to govern.

For Gaetz, who fancies himself the leader of the rebel rump, McCarthy’s collaboration with Democrats to keep the government open is proof of his illegitimacy. Indeed, the whole point of Gaetz’s obstinacy has been to force a government shutdown or force McCarthy to work with Democrats in order to orchestrate the speaker’s ouster.

There are only two problems with this thinking: It’s hypocritical and stupid. The hypocrisy stems from the fact that to make good on the threat to oust McCarthy requires Democratic votes. As of Monday, perhaps a dozen or so Republicans would vote to “vacate the chair” — i.e. depose McCarthy. Gaetz’s gambit depends on Democrats even more than McCarthy does.

The stupidity is too deep and wide to describe in full here. But the idea that legislation must effectively have unanimous and party-line support from the speaker’s party is a preposterous invention at odds with all of American history. Even the not-really-a-rule “Hastert Rule” only requires a majority of the majority to support specific legislation.

Crucially, the budget cuts and amendment demands of the hard-liners itching to shut down the government last week would not have passed the Democrat-controlled Senate or survived Biden’s veto pen. And shutdowns always hurt the party that launches them. But they don’t necessarily harm the Gaetzes who come from safe districts and have a political and financial incentive to make anyone who tries to make the system work seem corrupt.

A Gaetz “motion to vacate” McCarthy may work. But as with the rebels’ shutdown “plan,” nobody can answer what happens after that. House Democrats are more unified than the GOP but just barely. And they suffer from many of the dynamics plaguing the GOP. A Democrat voting to keep McCarthy speaker would invite a primary challenge. A deadlock on the speaker vote wouldn’t mean a government shutdown, but it would shut down the House.

I have one modest solution. For the post’s first half century, the speaker was chosen by secret ballot. Let’s go back to that. I don’t know if that would save McCarthy’s speakership, but nor do I care. A secret ballot for speaker would empower the “normies” in both parties to find a consensus candidate who’d tack closer to Schuyler Colfax’s view of the job.


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