It is sometimes said that politics involves the art of compromise. This does not mean that in politics one cannot have principles and stick to them but that at some point if there is a clash of principles, then there may be no means of resolution within the system other than having one or both sides back down, at least partially. This is because when it comes to the decisions of certain political institutions, there is no supra-arbiter to decide who wins and who loses. The contesting parties themselves have to work things out. This can be contrasted with (say) civil disputes between two parties where there is always recourse to an external entity like the courts that can step in and decide the issue.
This was perfectly illustrated in the vote for the Speaker of the US House of Representatives. The rules under which it operates created a box whose remarkable rigidity only became apparent when it went into operation this time. The rules said that the first order of operation had to be the election of the Speaker and that the Speaker had to be elected by a majority of the 435 members present and voting. Those members who were absent or voted ‘present’ or abstained were not counted. In a two-party system in which each side puts up one candidate and where the vote is along party lines, there is no problem in that the party that has the majority will always have its candidate win. And that is what usually happens.
The problem is if the majority party has a faction (whose number exceeds the party’s majority) that opposes its own nominee and refuses to vote for them and votes for various other people instead, because then no one will get the required majority. In theory, as long as the parties remain entrenched and refuse to change their views, the impasse could have continued indefinitely. According to the rules, there is no way to resolve this by appealing to any external body. The main way to get a result is for the members of the majority party to compromise among themselves on a candidate, which is what eventually happened. There are other options such as involving the minority party agreeing to vote for the majority party candidate under some kind of power-sharing agreement but those would be more extreme and unlikely to happen. But the need for some compromise is unavoidable.
Of course, creators of the original rules could have anticipated and forestalled this by (say) inserting a rule that if no Speaker is elected after a certain number of votes, the next vote would decide the winner by a plurality. This would give the majority party nominee an enormous advantage because then the holdouts would have to vote for them or risk the leader of the minority party becoming Speaker. There would be no reason for the majority party leader to compromise. I presume that it was this desire to force a compromise that caused the drafters of these rules to write them as they did. They assumed that the desire to have the government function would force the parties involved to arrive at some sort of compromise, as indeed eventually happened.
What surprises me is that what happened last week has not happened more frequently in the past. After all, there have been times when there were more than two parties represented in Congress and it was possible that no single party obtained a majority, though it did not happen. And there have been times, such as leading up to the Civil Rights era, when Democrats had conservative, mostly Southern factions known as Dixiecrats, also known as ‘Boll Weevils’, who later morphed into what are now known as ‘Blue Dogs’. So why did not those divisions, which were actually based on major policy disagreements, not lead to the kinds of impasse we saw last week, where it was not clear exactly what the divisions in the GOP were over?
It is hard to know for sure but my speculation is that in those former times, while people disagreed strongly over policy, they saw government as a vehicle for implementing their preferred policies. They did not see government as an evil entity in its own right that we would be better off without. The ‘government is the problem’ rhetoric that was promoted by Ronald Reagan caught fire even though he and his party had no real intention of getting rid of it because, let’s face it, government has been very good for the military-industrial-corporate complex. Being anti-government was a good vote-catching slogan for conservative politicians but they did not really want to get rid of it.
Fast-forward to the present where that anti-government sentiment has grown to the extent that there are people in the GOP who seem to believe that government truly is evil and are quite willing to shut it down. The vote for the Speaker is the most convenient weapon for doing that. By denying a successful Speaker vote, they essentially risked stopping the government from functioning altogether. And unlike the radicals of the past, they were comfortable with it, at least up to a point.
This time that problem was averted, albeit after a prolonged and messy fight within the GOP. But what of the next time? The people who think that shutting down the government is a good idea are still there. Where will their willingness to do so lead?