Real Housewives of Capitol Hill
26 septembre 2023
There is something odd going on in the US Congress these days. Bitter partisanship, obstructionism, and even total dysfunction are, alas, depressingly common on Capitol Hill now. But what to make of the handful of republican legislators – primarily in the House of Representatives but in the Senate as well – who seem hell bent on torpedoing the work of Congress, even when their own party is in the majority?
What to make of that handful of far-right congressmen and women who have fully embraced chaos and are quite likely to shut down the Government of the United States in the next few days, despite a bipartisan agreement hammered out in May to avoid just such an eventuality? With his razor-thin, five-seat majority Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy appears to have no choice but to let them wreak their havoc. What to make of Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville, until recently a winning college football coach, who has single-handedly blocked the promotion of some three hundred senior military officers for months? Until a (very modest) breakthrough was reached in the Senate recently, this included the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and two future service chiefs. What to make of the move, pushed in part by these same radical republicans, to begin an impeachment investigation in the House against President Biden, potentially counterproductive for House republicans even if it follows a more understandable partisan script?
It’s mystifying. All the more so because these congressional renegades seem to be targeting so much not the hated political enemy on the other side of the aisle, but their own party leadership. They are arguably hurting their own party’s prospects, and not the other guy’s, with their antics.
The coming shut down is unlikely to be a winner for republicans. After painful negotiations over the debt ceiling, the way was clear to pass a US Government budget for the coming year. It may not have been to every conservative’s liking, far from it, but at least the tough discussion seemed to be over. That is, until that somewhat amorphous groups of five, seven, ten hard-liners in the House who are strongly opposed to any compromise – people like Republican Matt Gaetz and Republican Marjorie Taylor Green – stepped in. They will not allow McCarthy to get to yes. And that’s not a good thing for McCarthy or the Republican Party. These shutdowns are not popular with the voters. A narrative of “we are so divided we can’t even agree amongst ourselves, much less with democrats, and as a result all but your emergency government functions will grind to a halt” is unlikely to impress voters. As things stand now, the Republican Party will bear full responsibility come election time next year.
Tuberville’s war on the military brass is similarly unhelpful for his colleagues. Tuberville has held up the promotion of hundreds of generals and admirals because he’s unhappy with “woke” policies at the Pentagon, particularly as regards service member access to abortion. That issue might win applause amongst some red ball cap MAGA voters, but mainstream republicans are horrified. Support for the men and women in uniform is one of the few things that still has bipartisan support in Congress, and endangering military readiness by keeping key security positions unfilled to score political points is not helpful for republicans.
The impeachment effort may ultimately hurt President Biden politically. Republican candidate for president Donald Trump undoubtedly appreciates investigative attention focused on his opponent rather than himself. But there is significant potential for blowback House republicans in this initiative as well. If the electorate has the sense that there is naked overreach, that it is politics and not justice driving the investigation, House republicans could pay the price. In the absence of any concrete evidence to suggest that Biden is guilty of “high crimes or misdemeanors” that potential is high. The republican-led impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton in 1998 almost certainly led to a historic GOP defeat in the House in midterm elections, and Donald Trump hit some of his highest polling numbers immediately after his first impeachment. The republican majority in the House is dangerously slim, and eighteen republican members come from districts that Biden won in 2020. Impeachment would seem like a dangerous wager for republicans determined to keep their majority in 2024. And yet the hard right is pushing hard for the investigation into Biden.
So why are these congressional republicans acting this way? It is helpful to think about how these disruptors define their role in Congress. About how they answer the most basic question: “What am I here to do?”. Arguably, they have a vision of that role that is radically different from that of their colleagues and predecessors.
In 1972, Harry McPherson published a book called “A Political Education: A Washington Memoir,” about his time working as a Senate staffer and as an official in the Lyndon Johnson White House. His insider’s account of the inner workings of the upper house of Congress in the 1950s – at a time when Lyndon B. Johnson was a masterful majority leader – is the seminal primer on what made the Senate, and the senators, tick in those days. The Senate was different then, more collegial perhaps, more of a members-only club, but it is still recognizable to the modern reader. There were firebrands like Joe McCarthy and crusaders like Hubert Humphrey. There were divisive issues and partisan fights big and small, just like today.
But in his telling, McPherson paints a picture of senators who were there, in the first instance, to get things done. Their motivations were varied, and as McPherson himself points out almost always mixed. Doing things to help one’s own re-election prospects, of course, was almost always top of mind. But McPherson’s senators very much wanted to help the people of their home states, to support their party’s initiatives and to block those of the opposition, and yes even to pass landmark legislation because they deeply believed in an issue or a cause. They may have been more or less effective, more or less ethical, but, generally speaking, they measured their success in legislation passed, even if compromise was necessary to get there. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 may have not gone as far in ending institutionalized racism in the South as some in Congress had hoped, mostly because southern democrats would never have agreed to that, but Lyndon B. Johnson was damn proud of it nonetheless.
Congress has certainly changed much since then, as has the American political scene. And the House of Representatives – more partisan and polarized – is not the Senate. Republican disrupters are nothing new there. Speaker Newt Gingrich and his large republican majority brought us the first major government shut down nearly thirty years ago. But even Gingrich had his “Contract with America” and an ideological justification for bringing government operations to halt. You could object to his tactics, but there was a clear policy objective – reducing the budget deficit – underlying the approach.
Things are different now. These modern, far right republicans quite manifestly have not come to Congress to get stuff done. They clearly don’t see themselves as statesmen or legislators or advocates for their constituents. They see themselves as influencers. Of course, just like the senators of old, they also seek reelection. But their pathway to that goal lies through clicks, likes, and retweets, not through negotiation or majority votes. The more attention they generate, even if that means hurting their own party or alienating their colleagues, the happier they are. Hunter Biden or Nancy Pelosi are always convenient targets for their outage machine, but so too from time to time are Republican Speaker of the House Kevin MCarthy or Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Controversy, even within their own caucus, is their objective, because that generates engagement from voters in their highly partisan districts, and from donors. At the end of the day, that seems to be what matters most.
Imperfect perhaps, but one analogy that springs to mind is the popular “Real Housewives” franchise on Bravo. In the various versions of that show, spectacle and infighting on air often lead to lucrative side deals and influencer opportunities for the women involved. Real Housewives is a “reality” show that is hardly real, and most participants think very carefully about the image they protect on screen. The drama is contrived. Arguably, the far-right republican drama we are currently watching – the Real Housewives of Capitol Hill – is equally cynical.