The US House of Representatives is in its worst chaos since the Civil War

House Republican Majority Leader Steve Scalise’s decision to step down from his Speaker of the House nomination illustrates the challenge Republicans face.

Scalise won fair and square the old-fashioned way. He got more votes than his opponent, House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan.

However, in the current narrow House Republican Majority, winning in the conference is only the beginning. You must acquire enough votes to win on the floor of the House as well. Since there are vacancies, it currently takes 217 votes to win the speakership on the floor.

Thus, 217 becomes the key number. If you have 217 or more, you are third in line to be President of the United States – and the only legislative officer named in the U.S. Constitution.

If you have fewer than 217 votes, you have nothing.

The mountain Scalise had to climb was to convince almost half the House Republican Conference that they should vote for him on the floor of the House even though he was not their choice in the Conference.

Apparently, the challenge was too great. With a Republican majority of 222, a mere six defectors could cause Scalise to fall short. (Naturally, Democrats are unlikely to vote for a Republican speaker – regardless of the many crises Congress needs to manage.

While Scalise defeated Jordan 113 to 99, consider that Kevin McCarthy initially defeated Congressman Andy Biggs by 188 to 31. It is also useful to remember that when the eight betrayers joined with the Democrats to fire Speaker McCarthy, he still held 96 percent of the House GOP conference. There were 24 Republican votes for McCarthy for each member of the destructive anti-McCarthy cabal.

We watched this process in January, when it took 15 ballots to elect McCarthy Speaker of the House. This was a long agonizing process with every vote carried live on C-SPAN (My wife Callista and I, as veterans of the House and friends of McCarthy, watched every minute). 

McCarthy’s 15-ballot endurance run was far from the record. In 1856, it took two months and 133 ballots to finally pick a speaker.

Of course, in the 1850s, the political system was in chaos. The fight between slavery and abolition was tearing the traditional parties apart. The Whigs were collapsing under the weight of the slavery issue (President Abraham Lincoln had spent his entire political career as a Whig until the emerging Republican Party became a more effective vehicle for his values and ambition.) There was a brief flourish of a Know Nothing Party, which opposed immigrants and African Americans. It rose and fell with great rapidity. The dominant Democrat Party split into a Northern wing opposed to the expansion of slavery – but not in favor of abolition – and a Southern wing deeply devoted to sustaining and protecting slavery as an institution and way of life.

It was in the context of this political turmoil that the decaying political parties found it impossible to impose discipline. In the middle of the tension and anger, they found it hard to find an acceptable speaker. Nathaniel Banks, a Democrat-turned-Republican because of his abolitionist views, finally won after an exhausting bruising two-month battle.

Given the pressures of television, social media, the wars in Israel and Ukraine, we are unlikely to have a marathon on the scale of 1856. But we may be facing a process that could run longer than the January McCarthy saga.

Part of the challenge in trying to unify the House GOP is structural. Part is driven by a huge tidal change in American politics. And part is the rise of a social media and television system of maximizing the rewards for being noisy, negative, and conflict-seeking.

There are huge differences in the makeup of American congressional districts. Deeply conservative members tend to come from Republican districts in which their bases want conflict, attacks against the left, and an all-out fight to control spending and the border. They also demand the impeachment of President Joe Biden. These members have no electoral incentive to move to the center or compromise. 

However, there are 18 members who come from districts Joe Biden carried in 2020, and another 30 or so members who psychologically reflect a more moderate approach. These members find themselves under the exact opposite pressure than their more conservative colleagues. The people they were elected to represent want bipartisanship, pragmatism, and problem-solving. 

This is the cause of the chaos you are seeing in the U.S. House. The vast difference in electoral pressures makes it extraordinarily challenging to bring together a majority coalition.

There is also an enormous shift underway in public opinion and party identification. The Democrat Party’s dramatic shift to a deeply leftwing, pro-transsexual, anti-white, and anti-Semitic ideology is a driving factor. The participation of “the squad” in pro-Hamas rallies is a symptom of this new pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel bias. The fact that 12 Democrat state legislators walked out of the North Carolina State House in protest of a resolution pledging support to Israel is another example.

As the national Democrats have grown more radical, their more moderate state and local members, such as the African American mayor of Dallas, Texas, have begun switching to the Republican Party.

The GOP is becoming the party of working Americans of all ethnic backgrounds. The Democrats have become the party of highly educated elites. This is an almost complete reversal of the governing coalition President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put together in the 1930s.

As President Donald Trump has emerged as the anti-left champion of working Americans, the old pre-Ronald Reagan Republicans have recoiled in horror. The tension between the always Trump and never Trump wings of the party is one of the tensions making it hard to have a stable speakership.

Finally, when you only have a five-seat majority, it only takes a handful of angry, media savvy, internet focused mavericks to make governing almost impossible. If you are willing to be noisy, combative, self-righteous, and attention-seeking enough, you can raise a lot of money from people across the country who hate the current Washington establishment and just want to have champions who fight. This puts a premium for some members on fighting and disrupting rather than building and achieving.

With Majority Leader Scalise’s departure, the potential speaker has a big mountain to climb to find 217 votes. 

If no one can, all bets are off – and I have no idea who can put the GOP back together.

Newt Gingrich was a member of the US House of Representatives for 20 years and served as its 50th Speaker

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