The removal of Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House of Representatives, led by perennial malcontent Matt Gaetz, was disgraceful, and will have lasting negative implications for Congress and the nation.
A vote to remove a speaker during his or her term of office is virtually unprecedented. The last time it was attempted was in 1910, over a century ago, and that vote was unsuccessful. Speaker Joe Cannon was not removed. In fact, during my 28 years in Congress, my office was in the Cannon House Office Building, named after Speaker Cannon. History can be its own reward.
The speaker of the House is second in line to succeed the president. He or she heads a powerful arm of government, and is elected by a vote of the entire House. Throughout our history, the tradition has been that the majority party votes at a party conference to select its candidate for speaker, and the minority party does the same. Both candidates are then nominated on the floor of the House. When the full House votes, no matter how close the inter-party vote is, the candidate of the majority party is elected speaker. This reflects the will of the American people to have the House run by someone the majority party has selected.
To remove the speaker — to “vacate the chair” — is such an extraordinary action that it should be based on criminal conduct or serious acts of moral turpitude by the speaker. It should not be a political decision. Yet that’s exactly what happened last week, when eight far-right Republicans allied themselves with 208 Democrats to remove McCarthy, who had the support of 96 percent of Republicans.
This was strictly a power play by Gaetz and his gang of hostage-takers. There isn’t one significant issue that these eight outliers have in common with the 208 Democrats and their minority leader, Hakeem Jeffries. This was a defeat for tradition and a victory for Gaetz and his unbridled ambition and lust for national publicity.
Gaetz accused McCarthy of conspiring with Democrats because McCarthy forged a bipartisan coalition with them to keep the government open after the Gaetz crowd refused to support Republican legislation to prevent a shutdown. This was an obvious ploy by Gaetz to set McCarthy up for failure. If McCarthy hadn’t passed bipartisan legislation to keep the government open, Gaetz would have accused him of poor leadership. When the speaker did the responsible thing, Gaetz virtually accused him of collaborating with the enemy. This is the ultimate hypocrisy, because Gaetz gave congressional Democrats power and influence they would not have had otherwise.
I’ve known McCarthy since he was first elected to Congress in 2006. I saw him work his way up through various leadership positions, and have always been impressed by him. Most important, he always kept his word to me. As speaker, he overcame massive political obstacles to get serious legislation through the House.
The reality is that Democrats control the White House and the Senate, while Republicans have a small majority in the House. Keeping that majority together required the skills of a juggler and a magician, plus extraordinary patience. The 221 House Republicans constitute a wide variety of philosophical and geographic views and beliefs. For instance, a Republican from rural Mississippi would have a very different agenda from a blue-collar conservative Republican representing suburban Long Island. It was McCarthy’s arduous and unenviable task to find common ground while accommodating these disparate agendas. (Let me commend Long Island Representatives Andrew Garbarino, Anthony D’Esposito and Nick LaLota for always taking their jobs seriously by working with McCarthy to get results for their districts and our region, and not grandstanding or taking cheap shots.)
McCarthy has decided not to run again for speaker. I certainly can’t blame him, though his talents and abilities will be sorely missed. I don’t in any way envy his successor. Not only will he or she have to work with a razor-thin majority, but now that the unwritten tradition of not removing a speaker for personal political aggrandizement has been shattered, the next speaker will also have to operate under the constant threat that a disgruntled minority of the majority might conspire with the minority party to create chaos.
Congress won’t be the same. Thanks for the terrific job, Kevin, and doing what you could to preserve sanity!
Peter King is a former congressman, and a former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Comments? email@example.com.