Virginia’s congressional delegation includes a subcommittee chairman: Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
It also includes a ranking member — i.e., the most senior member of the minority party on a committee: Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, chaired the House Education and Labor Committee when Democrats were in the majority and presumably would again if they were to regain control.
However, the most influential Virginia House member is now a second-term legislator who holds no formal leadership position. However, he has helped accomplish something that’s never been done in the history of the republic: Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, is one of the eight Republicans who helped oust House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Update: An earlier version said Good has had no bills passed. He’s had bills passed by the House, but not passed into law.
In their view, McCarthy’s great crime was that he cooperated with Democrats to prevent a government shutdown, so they cooperated with Democrats to overthrow the speaker. They probably don’t see it that way, but that’s how the votes line up.
All this poses a profound philosophical question: Should a small number of rebels be allowed to join with the opposition party to decapitate their party’s leader? After all, 210 Republicans wanted to keep McCarthy as speaker, only eight wanted him out, but those eight got their way, depriving that overwhelming pro-McCarthy Republican majority of its preferred choice. Why does the tail get to wag the dog? (Answer: Because while the speaker comes from the majority party, the speaker is technically elected House-wide, so if that majority party can’t muster a majority for its choice, then, well, you get what we just got.)
I’m surprised that Democrats voted en masse against McCarthy. They certainly have partisan reasons to be against a Republican speaker, but they’re just going to get another Republican speaker and, from their point of view, the next one might be worse. I’d have thought enough deals might have gotten cut for McCarthy to preserve his speakership. Obviously not. That seems either a noble self-sacrifice on McCarthy’s part or a political failure, take your pick.
Here’s how Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, explained her vote to bring down McCarthy: “McCarthy has also proven he cannot be trusted and his word means nothing. Despite making an agreement with the Biden-Harris Administration and Senate Leadership regarding Fiscal Year 2024 funding levels in the Bipartisan Budget Agreement, McCarthy quickly reneged on those promises to cater to the extreme MAGA Republican wing of his conference. He unilaterally launched a baseless impeachment inquiry at the behest of Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican allies in the House in an attempt to exact petty, partisan revenge to distract from their extreme agenda. As a result, the Chaos Caucus reigned over the House and brought us to the brink of a government shutdown.”
Of course, Good saw it differently. He tweeted: “The American people need a Speaker who will fight to keep the promises Republicans made to get the majority, not someone who cuts fiscally irresponsible deals that get more Democrat votes than Republican votes.” The problem, of course, is that those Republican promises, as Good sees them, are never going to pass a Democratic Senate or get signed into law by a Democratic president. Those Democratic senators made very different promises to get their majority.
This seems a good teaching moment for Americans. If American government seems clunky and inefficient, that’s partly because of how it was designed. Our founders were wary of a government that might be too effective. They wanted some checks and balances. Actually, they wanted lots of checks and balances. They divided the executive function of government from the legislative function of government — and they further divided that legislative function between two different legislative bodies. They invented a House of Representatives, elected frequently, to channel public opinion. They wanted to hear what the public thought, but they also weren’t prepared to bend to it. That’s why they invented a Senate, elected to longer terms — and originally intended to be chosen by state legislatures. The idea was that the two would balance each other.
Moncure Daniel Conway, a Stafford County-born minister and writer in the 1800s, once told a story that went like this: Thomas Jefferson, just returned from France, was having breakfast with George Washington when Jefferson chastised Washington and others at the constitutional convention for agreeing to a two-chamber legislature. He felt only one was necessary.
“Why,” asked Washington, “did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer, before drinking?”
“To cool it,” answered Jefferson, “my throat is not made of brass.”
“Even so,” rejoined Washington, “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”
That story, published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1884, gave rise to the notion of “the senatorial saucer” as a philosophy of government. As with many good stories, however, there’s no evidence that any of it is true. In fact, Jefferson seemed quite OK with two legislative chambers. In 1789, he wrote the Marquis de Lafayette to tell him that “for good legislation two houses are necessary.” In my world, it’s akin to a story going past several eyes of editors before it goes into print, typos and all.
Nonetheless, there is some figurative truth to the “senatorial saucer” theory: Our founders set up a government that requires some compromise to function. The problem now is we have some legislators who are unable or unwilling to compromise. Of course, those legislators believe that compromise is a bad thing. Good told fellow House members: “With the Democrats driving the fiscal bus off the cliff at 100 mph, we cannot simply be content to be the party to slow it down to 95 just to sit in the front seat and wear the captain’s hat.”
I’m not sure our founders envisioned a situation where we have a majority party in one chamber that’s dependent on a small number of legislators who refuse any compromise. Of course, our founders never envisioned political parties, either.
We have a House run by one party and a Senate run by another. Why should these eight Republicans get to be the ones who have their way? In Virginia, we have a similar divided government, just with different parties — a Republican governor, a Republican House, a Democratic senate. If Virginia’s Senate Democrats acted the way these eight House Republicans did, they should be the ones calling the shots in Richmond. It’s not really supposed to work that way. Of course, Virginia came close to not getting budget amendments approved because of a deadlock between the two parties, but those were, at least, amendments to an existing state budget — we didn’t risk a government shutdown and the Speaker of the House didn’t get voted out because he didn’t get everything Republicans wanted. In a divided government, nobody’s going to get all of what they want, yet that’s what this small group of Republicans wanted in policy terms.
At the constitutional convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin advised differing factions: “When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner, here, both sides must part from some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition.” I also suspect if Franklin were in Congress today, the former pharmacist would be trying to mix up some concoction to calm everyone’s nerves.
So who should we blame for all this political drama? Should we blame Good and his cohorts? Should we blame McCarthy? Should we blame Democrats for joining in? Or all three? I’d prefer to look deeper into history.
1. We should blame the founders for creating an unwieldy system of government.
This may be an unpopular and unconventional view, but bear with me. Our founders lived under a parliamentary system. They could have duplicated that, just without a king. But they didn’t. If they had adopted a parliamentary system, this kind of intra-party turmoil would still be dramatic but wouldn’t be unusual.
Envision an American government that looks like the one in Great Britain (or Australia, Canada and New Zealand, who used the same blueprint). Under that scenario, there would be no president or vice president or Senate. The House of Representatives would constitute both the legislative and executive branches. Since Republicans won the 2022 House elections, Kevin McCarthy, as the party leader, would have become the American prime minister. Now some backbenchers have joined with the opposition party to vote him out. Stunning in our system of government, but it’s not unprecedented for a party leader to fall in a parliamentary system.
In 2010, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd lost the support of his governing Labor Party and there were rumors that his deputy, Julia Gilliard, was about to challenge him. Within days, Rudd was out and Gilliard was in as the new PM. By 2013, Gillard had fallen out of favor with her Labor colleagues; they voted her out and Rudd back in as prime minister. Cautionary note: Australians grew so weary of this that they threw Labor out in the 2013 elections and installed the Liberal Party (which in Australia’s Down Under fashion is actually the conservative party). Two years later, the Liberals (conservatives) did the same thing — ousting Tony Abbott in favor of Malcolm Turnbull. Three years after that, Liberals (conservatives) booted out Turnbull in favor of Scott Morrison. Turnbull called those who plotted against him “wreckers.” Australians who lived through five leadership changes in eight years would not find the McCarthy drama all that interesting. The big difference between Washington and Canberra: In all these Australian cases, the prime minister was voted out by a majority of their own party’s caucus —the opposition party had no say in the matter. In our case, all but eight Republicans wanted McCarthy to stay.
Also of note: Parliamentary systems still have a speaker of the house but that speaker is a figurehead.
Republicans do have a legitimate claim that they’re closer to popular opinion: The entire House was elected in 2022, only one-third of the Senate was. Our founders, though, set up a system designed to thwart much of the public’s will. If they had wanted it otherwise, they’d have given us a parliament, not a Congress.
2. We should blame Americans for being politically divided.
In the 2022 midterms, voters did something unusual: They turned the House over to Republicans but gave Democrats a majority in the Senate. I’m not sure either party can claim a mandate based on that. If Congress is dysfunctional, maybe it’s because Americans have voted for that dysfunction. If Americans really wanted the type of deep budget cuts that Good and others wanted, they should have elected a Republican Senate, too. On the other hand, if they wanted the spending levels that Good & Co. objected to, then voters should have elected a Democratic House. They didn’t do either so it seems to me that Americans are simply of mixed minds. In that case, we’re getting exactly the kind of chaos we indirectly voted for.
3. We should blame our geographical polarization.
The problem with what I just said in point two is that it’s theoretically true but not practically true. Democrats gained a Senate majority in the 2022 elections because a majority of Georgia voters elected Democrat Raphael Warnock as their U.S. senator, giving the Senate 51 Democrats. However, a majority of Georgia voters also elected nine Republicans and five Democrats to the House. It’s not so much that voters couldn’t make up their minds but that voters have arranged themselves geographically. Statewide, the Senate election was close — in the first round, neither Warnock nor Republican Herschel Walker polled a majority, forcing a runoff where Warnock took 51.4%. However, none of Georgia’s 14 House elections were particularly close. In 11, the winning candidate polled more than 60% of the vote. In four, the winning candidate took 70% or more; in two, more than 80%. The closest was the Second District where the Democrat took just under 55%.
Georgians are only closely divided in the aggregate; their day-to-day reality is quite polarized. Those voters who cast ballots for Warnock in the Senate weren’t the ones casting ballots for Republicans in the House, and vice versa. Very few of them actually voted for divided government, that’s just the way it worked out, partly because of where people choose to live. I’ve made this point before but I’ll make it again: The Democratic vote in the country is inefficiently distributed; it’s too concentrated in a relatively small number of mostly metro areas. Four of the five Democratic House seats in Georgia were won by 60% or more of the vote; three were won with 70% or more. The Republican margins were also wide, just not quite as wide. My point: Democrats in Georgia may well have a bare majority but they can’t elect a majority of the state’s House members because they’re too concentrated. If Democrats want to win more House seats across the country, they need some of their supporters to move out of cities and into rural areas.
We see much the same thing in Virginia. Out of our 11 congressional districts, only two — the 2nd in Hampton Roads (Republican Jen Kiggans) and the 7th on the outskirts of Northern Virginia (Democrat Abigail Spanberger) — are seriously competitive. What happens when we have districts that aren’t competitive? It’s a lot easier for more extreme candidates to win. We typically call those eight Republican rebels in Washington hard-right because it’s hard to find other terminology. McCarthy questioned whether those eight rebels were, in fact, conservatives at all: “They don’t get to say they’re conservative because they’re angry and they’re chaotic. That’s not the party I belong to. The party of Reagan was if you believed in your principles, that you could govern in a conservative way. They are not conservative and they do not have the right to have the title.” The problem is that the party of Reagan is disappearing into the rearview mirror.
McCarthy may well be right, ideologically speaking, that some of these harder-right Republicans we’re seeing aren’t true conservatives — see my previous column that referenced Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism — but it doesn’t really matter: These are the legislators that some deep red districts have sent to Washington. One McCarthy ally, Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-North Dakota, called them “the exotics” as in: “The next speaker better figure out how to negotiate with the exotics before you become speaker because you’re sure as hell gonna have to do it after you’re speaker.” You’ll notice earlier that Virginia’s McClellan, a Democrat, called these Republicans the “chaos caucus,” but that’s not a Democratic epithet. It’s one Republicans have used. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Georgia, groused: “Those eight people are anarchists, and they’re chaos caucus members.”
Whatever you call them, how did Virginia — a state where politics have generally been staid and genteel — produce a “chaos caucus” member?
Good stands as a classic example of how the Republican Party has evolved, and how the lack of competitive districts mean there are few guardrails to a party that wants to careen further to the right (or the left, for that matter). Good initially won his nomination in a convention where just 2,527 people participated. By contrast, the Democratic primary in the 5th District that year saw 54,047 voters participate.
Good had a close contest against that Democratic nominee that fall — Good won with 52% of the vote — but redistricting and realignment has now given him a district where he won reelection with 57.6% of the vote. Realistically, the 5th District isn’t competitive, no matter how much Democrats might wish it to be so. Good will not be beaten by a Democrat. He will only be beaten — if he ever is — by a challenger within his party. (See my previous column on why Del. John McGuire, R-Goochland County, is a potential threat to Good.)
That’s not unusual. Of the eight anti-McCarthy Republican rebels, only one — Eli Crane of Arizona — comes from what would be considered an obviously competitive district. (He won with 53.9% of the vote.) They will likely not face any retribution from general election voters. It’s only if their own parties back home turn on them that they will.
Ultimately, if voters don’t like what happened in Washington this week, it’s the ones in swing districts who can fix this: They can elect either a Democratic majority or a bigger Republican majority where these eight rebels wouldn’t matter. Since most of us don’t live in swing districts, there’s really very little anyone else can do.
Until then, we wait to see who the next speaker will be and how well he or she will be able to work with Good and what amounts to the decision-making caucus. Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County, tweeted his preference: “My goal next week is to support the most conservative candidate who can get the 218 votes needed to become our next Speaker. I look forward to being home over the next several days and hearing from my constituents of the Sixth District about who they think will do the best job.”
I wonder what voters in that 64% Republican district will tell him.
Updated, 10:42 a.m.: Cline’s pulse-taking didn’t take long. This morning he posted that he’ll be backing Jim Jordan: “The next Speaker of the House must be someone who can unite our conference. Jim Jordan is that person. He is a strong leader, principled, respected, and a champion of conservative values. That’s why I fully support him as the next Speaker of the House.”
The latest on early voting trends
I write a free weekly newsletter on Virginia politics that goes out every Friday afternoon. This week I’ll look at the latest early voting trends, plus catch up on some other political developments. I’ll also write about a gaffe during this week’s Cardinal-sponsored campaign forum between House candidates Lily Franklin and Chris Obenshain. (Hint: The gaffe wasn’t theirs, it was mine). You can sign up for that or any of our other free newsletters here.