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The Clown House
The House of Representatives has historically been a bit more than the envisioned cup of hot tea, and it hasn't gotten any better.
By Bel Aves, Founder and Publisher, the Conservative Historian
“I weep for the liberty of my country when I see at this early day of its successful experiment that corruption has been imputed to many members of the House of Representatives, and the rights of the people have been bartered for promises of office.”
-Andrew Jackson, on the corrupt bargain of 1824
“I have accepted a seat in the House of Representatives and thereby have consented to my own ruin, to your ruin, and to the ruin of our children. I give you this warning that you may prepare your mind for your fate.”
-John Adams, to his wife Abigail
Don’t you love a farce?
My fault, I fear
I thought that you’d want what I want
Sorry my dear
But where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns
-Stephen Sondheim from A Little Night Music
During the incomparable movie Lincoln, the titular character converses with his Secretary of State and right-hand man William Seward, who calls the House a “rat’s nest filled with talentless hicks and hacks.” Thank God we are now doing so much better.
For those thinking the vitriol used in today’s debates is outlandish, well, they lack historical knowledge or the passions of the pre-Bellum Congress. Here is this 1858 historical highlight from the History, Art, and Archives of the House of Representatives:
“The most infamous floor brawl in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives erupted as Members debated the Kansas Territory’s pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution late into the night of February 5-6. Shortly before 2 a.m., Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt exchanged insults, then blows. ‘In an instant, the House was in the greatest possible confusion,’ the Congressional Globe reported. More than 30 Members joined the melee. Northern Republicans and Free Soilers joined ranks against Southern Democrats. Speaker James Orr, a South Carolina Democrat, gaveled furiously for order and then instructed Sergeant-at-Arms Adam J. Glossbrenner to arrest non-compliant Members. Wading into the ‘combatants,’ Glossbrenner held the House Mace high to restore order. Wisconsin Republicans John ‘Bowie Knife’ Potter and Cadwallader Washburn ripped the hairpiece from the head of William Barksdale, a Democrat from Mississippi. The melee dissolved into a chorus of laughs and jeers, but the sectional nature of the fight powerfully symbolized the nation’s divisions. When the House reconvened two days later, a coalition of Northern Republicans and Free Soilers narrowly blocked the referral of the Lecompton Constitution to the House Territories Committee. Kansas entered the Union in 1861 as a free state.”
None of the shenanigans we will soon cover on today’s House would have happened under Illinois Representative Joe “Uncle Joe” Cannon. “Uncle Joe” Cannon’s career in Congress spanned almost five decades. During that time, Cannon served as chairman of three committees: Expenditures in the Post Office Department, Rules, and Appropriations. From the 58th Congress through the 61st Congress (1903–1911), he simultaneously chaired the Rules Committee and served as Speaker of the House.
As chair of the Rules Committee, Cannon managed the floor schedule for legislation, and, as Speaker, he controlled the debate on the floor. During Cannon’s reign, he usurped power from the committee chairs and ruled the Congress with an iron fist, earning him the nickname “Czar Cannon.” He once said, “Sometimes in politics, one must duel with skunks, but no one should be fool enough to allow skunks to choose the weapons.” I am not confident I would approve of Uncle Joe, his methods, and his accumulation of power. But he stands in just a teensy bit of contrast with today’s GOP caucus in the House.
Two commonalities exist between former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and Cannon. They both endured votes to remove them from their post, and both were from the GOP. That is about it. Cannon famously withstood his vote and kept the gavel, though his power was somewhat curtailed afterward.
The seeds of the McCarthy debacle were sown about ten months ago, and in this, again, McCarthy made history. His speakership vote in January represented the first time in 100 years that such a speaker’s election took so long. He eventually won the election as House Speaker on the 15th ballot after days of grueling negotiations that forced leaders to make concessions to the party’s far-right members up to the last moment of sometimes-heated discussions on the House floor. It was those concessions that did him in.
During this process, I loved this quote from McCarthy stalwart Tom Cole of Oklahoma: “I don’t know how many times you have to tell people we’re not moving. This is the guy that got us here, and we don’t intend to leave Moses on the other side of the river. He’s coming with us.” The analogy works pretty well, except that Moses did not have a backbone of jelly and did not appease Jewish leaders who incited riots.
If McCarthy had been the leader of the Jews in 1300 BCE, he would have tried to cut a deal with Pharoah as long as the Egyptian King kept him in his position, God and magic staffs be damned. On January 13th, McCarthy condemned Donald Trump’s role in the January 6th riot in the capitol. Then, just barely two weeks later, he went, hat in hand, to the former president to ask forgiveness for his transgression.
McCarthy’s initial foes, and some of the ones who brought him down, are adamantly opposed to raising the debt ceiling or cutting spending deals with Democrats. Also at risk were other high-profile measures that would require agreement between House Republicans and the Democrats who control the Senate and White House: funding the Pentagon and other agencies, sending aid to Ukraine as it battles an invasion, and approving food stamps for low-income people as part of the farm bill, which is typically reauthorized every five years.
Yet the contortionist McCarthy nor the memory-challenged George Santos of New York (who should have been evicted months ago) are not even the most odious of the Republican Party in the house. Two factions initially opposed McCarthy. The first, led by Chip Roy of Texas, had legitimate demands and voted to keep McCarthy. In light of the $1.7 trillion pork fest omnibus package, these representatives wanted to stop the odious practice of leadership crafting a massive bill and then giving representatives hours to yeah or nay it. Something I wholeheartedly agree with.
But that was just part of the never-Kevins. The other part, the Matt Gaetz segment, seemed to have a precisely zero agenda different than getting on TV or more clicks. And in this, Mission Accomplished. For two weeks now, it has been Gaetz this and Matt that. Gaetz is the type of guy who feels that if arson got him on Fox and Steve Bannon’s podcast, he would burn his house down.
In the Musical Hamilton, the King (George III) has three songs in which he essentially, and in the vein of dark comedy, talks of the American colonies the way an abuser talks of his victim.
But though the King’s song is meant to be comic relief from the main story, it has several pieces of incisiveness. After Britain formerly gave up the American colonies, the King intones:
“What comes next?
You’ve been freed
Do you know how hard it is to lead?
You’re on your own
Do you have a clue what happens now?
It’s much harder when it’s all your call.”
Gaetz has not a clue. There are no alternative candidates, no idea who to work with given a six-vote majority nor a Democratically controlled Senate and White House. Governance, conservativism, the party, none of these are resident in his thinking.
It is getting attention, and he has done that.
Research, talking to constituents, writing, legislating, working on committees, building coalitions, and crafting bills is all work. It also is a short job description of a member of the House of Representatives. Know what is not or should not be in that description? “Must have been on Fox Prime Time at least 60 gazillion times.”
In the January imbroglio, we had this nugget vaguely resembling the brawl of 1858. A tense moment on the House of Representatives floor resulted in a Republican member physically lunging at another, who then had to be restrained from further escalation by Representative Richard Hudson. The scuffle happened between Reps-elect Mike Rogers from Alabama and Gaetz after the 14th House speaker vote failed. Gaetz was discussing with Kevin McCarthy the possibility of backing him in the next vote and appeared to mouth the word “committee.”
The rational, core historian and the rule of law part of me abhor Rogers’s behavior. The best approach to Gaetz would be to find a popular Floridan conservative, like a state senator from the panhandle, and run them against Gaetz. But we are ever weak creatures, and my instinct tells me that a minor scuffle might be the type of medicine that Gaetz needs because clearly, someone failed to teach him morals, loyalty, or anything resembling how to be an effective member of Congress.
Part of the McCarthy spectacle featured Marjorie Taylor Greene, who also voted for him, looking better and more statesmanlike than Matt Gaetz, and do not get me started on Nancy Mace. The South Carolinian makes McCarthy seem like Thomas More. All along, I thought that Gaetz and Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert were performative fools, but making Marjorie Taylor Greene even smidgingly reputable is an accomplishment all in itself. Of course, the level for that bar would be too daunting for the most intrepid limbo contestants.
But for all of the comedy, there are tears. As with many things, liberals and progressives will always have the advantage over true conservatives. It is simply a matter of one side saying I am going to give you something “free” and the other side, the conservative side, saying that nothing is free, there is always a price. Being correct does not always garner votes.
If you have to explain, you are losing, as the saying goes. Same with the principles of the Chip Roy faction of the house. The Democrats can easily unite because the only genuine debate is how much of a sludge pile behemoth spending bill they can get through. Even with a faltering president, a seven-vote majority in the House, and a single-vote majority in the Senate, they still managed to get an infrastructure bill stuffed with green pork, a $1.2 trillion Inflation Reduction Act with more pork and money for a larger IRS. There was also a silicon chip subsidy bill.
And from Pelosi, a $1.7 Trillion omnibus bill that ran to 2,700 pages long, with over 7,500 earmarks and in a horribly effective corruption of government, gave the House precisely 12 hours to peruse this. I am a voracious reader, but I am not certain I could get through a 400-page, eminently readable David McCullough history in 12 hours. And the omnibus was chock-a-block with technical and legislative jargon. Twelve weeks made sense. Simply, it was not to be read, just voted on. And all the Democrats did. They want the pork, and they got it in spades, the future be damned. This is why Chip Roy was onto something. Too bad a principled representative is surrounded by the clown caucus.
Belisarius Aves is the founder and Publisher of the Conservative Historian. Aves has conducted extensive research in Political, Religious, Social, and Educational history across all eras and geographies. He has been writing and podcasting for over 12 years. In 2020, he published his first book, The Conservative Historian. He has degrees in history, education, and an MBA. @BelAves