After three weeks it appears Congress has finally chosen a House Speaker: Mike Johnson of Louisiana. If you’ve never heard of him, don’t despair. Almost nobody has. He’s only 51 years old and first arrived in Congress in the 2016 election.
So why him? Well, a couple of reasons. First, Trump likes him; that’s pretty important. The last few weeks have shown that Trump can’t anoint a speaker (Jim Jordan) but he can shoot one down (Tom Emmer). Also, and equally important, he hasn’t done anything to piss off his fellow Republicans. The last few weeks have shown House Republicans sometimes act like rivals at a 3rd grade lunch table with all the petty grudges and silly hurt feelings.
I have to confess I’m a little troubled by this selection. It’s true that Congress can now get back to work on support for Ukraine, Israel and keeping the government running. But Mike, like Kevin McCarthy before him, sits under a sword of Damocles because any one member of the House can call for a “motion to vacate,” essentially call for a vote of no confidence. Again he can afford to lose only four votes before we do this all again.
Essentially, other than a new person in the speaker’s seat, nothing has changed. Several Republicans have voiced opposition to ongoing support for Ukraine and the Republicans who opposed McCarthy were (among other things) unhappy that he worked with Democrats to vote on September 30th to keep the government running until November 17th.
So what does Mike bring to the table? Good question.
The role of Speaker of the House requires a great deal of knowledge. There are countless rules and customs around how legislation passes, how committee assignments are made, et. There is a steep learning curve and it’s not a job for legislative novices.
Frankly I fear Speaker Johnson will enjoy a short honeymoon and once the far right Republicans who drove out McCarthy start resharpening their claws, well…
In a post last month I spoke about (among other things) Georgia’s indictments against former President Trump. I suggested that there were so many co-conspirators because the prosecutors hoped one or more of them would “flip,” that is, agree to testify against Trump in hopes of a lighter sentence.
Well it’s happened. Two of those indicted, Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro, have agreed to testify in return to reduced sentences. This happened as jury selection was beginning for their trial. One of the conditions of the agreements is that they both truthfully testify against Trump and the other conspirators. They both avoided jail time and we have to believe they have pretty devastating testimony against Trump.
In other bad news, Trump’s choice for the next House Speaker was Jim Jordan and his fellow Republicans voted today to remove him from consideration. It appears that Trump’s strategy of bullying and threatening to get his choice is no longer working.
Everyone knows this now but on October 7th members of Hamas in the Gaza Strip invaded and bombed Israel. Since then both residents of both Israel and Gaza have suffered tremendously. Most conflicts these days are complex and confusing and this is no different.
I’ve been thinking a great deal these days how best to encapsulate what is going on and I recently heard a good metaphor: is this Israel’s 9/11 or is it Gaza’s prison break?
First a little history: before 1948 the area we now call Israel was Palestine and while it had a Jewish population it was ruled by Palestinians who were Arab Muslims. After World War II Zionists (Jews who believed they needed a homeland) waged war and conquered Palestine. Most Palestinians fled to the area North and West of Jerusalem (called the West Bank and ruled by Jordan) or an area on the Mediterranean Sea (called the Gaza Strip and ruled by Egypt). In 1967 after the Six Day War both areas were taken by Israel. In 2005 and 2006 governance of Gaza was given to Hamas. Problem is, Hamas is founded on the desire to destroy Israel and return Palestine. Please note: this is an incredibly simplistic explanation.
So if you’re Israel this is your 9/11: Foreign terrorists attacked without warning and want your destruction. They need to be crushed without mercy and taught never to do this again.
But if you live on in Gaza you’ve been imprisoned there since 1948, oppressed and trapped without mercy. The attack was simply self defense in the need to end your imprisonment.
But what now? The lines have been drawn in ways that surprise nobody. Arab nations are lining up behind Gaza and while there is no proof of this Iran may be or get involved. The Iranian government has allied with Hamas. The United States, long an ally with Israel, is backing Israel. Of course since the US has no House Speaker there’s not much we can do but that’s the subject for another entry.
Hamas, for all its weaponry, is small and nobody really believes they can conquer Israel. If Iran and some of the Arab nations band together this could turn into a regional war but there’s been no sign of it and President Biden is working hard to make certain this doesn’t turn into a bigger conflict.
Israel has told people in the northern part of Gaza to evacuate and prepare for a ground invasion. It’s a given Israeli troops will invade Gaza but, well, here we go again. I suspect Israel will find that getting into Gaza will be easier than getting out. While they are there they will be an occupying force surrounded by people who don’t want them gone, they want them dead. It will look like the British army’s occupation of Northern Ireland last century.
In the meantime innocent people on both sides will die. Keep the prayers coming.
It’s been eight days since my last post and it hasn’t gotten any better. Last week I wrote that House Republicans ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy because eight ulta conservative members didn’t like the job he was doing. They didn’t feel his promises could be trusted and they didn’t like the fact that he worked with President Biden and House Democrats to keep the government open.
Since then two things have happened: Hamas (the governing authority in Gaza) opened fire and stormed into Israel. There they killed and kidnapped Israeli citizens; the number keeps changing. The United States has always seen Israel as a longtime ally and ordinarily we’d help them. But without a functioning House of Representatives we can’t send them any aid.
Also the Republicans don’t appear any closer to find a Speaker candidate they can all support. As I said last week they removed Kevin McCarthy without having a clear successor. Within a few days two Representatives announced their candidacy: Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio. They both hoped they would garner the support of enough members to win a floor vote of all 433 members; there are normally 435 members but 2 seats are vacant. Since all 212 Democrats will almost certainly vote for the House Minority Leader Hakeen Jeffries of New York, any Republican candidate must get 213 votes out of the 221 members, leaving only a 4 vote margin. When Republicans voted on a secret ballot 113 members voted for Scalise and 99 for Jordan. Scalise hoped that after this he could convince 100 members to then coalesce behind him. When it didn’t happen he pulled his name from contention.
Still with me? Good. When Steve Scalise pulled out, Representative Austin Scott of Georgia announced he would run. Again on a secret ballot 124 members voted for Jordan and 81 for Scott; Jordan asked for another secret ballot and he gained a few votes but not nearly enough. This vote was 152 to 55.
Now let’s make this more complicated. These votes among Republicans were secret ballots but when they actually cast votes for Speaker they vote in public. Former President Trump backs Jim Jordan and has always made it clear that he has zero tolerance for disloyalty. It’s generally assumed that several members will vote for Jordan just to avoid angering Trump. But again, if more than 4 of them don’t vote for a candidate he won’t win.
Democrats are, as you would expect, taking a back seat and are seeing this as a Republican problem. But a “do nothing” Congress has real consequences. As I said earlier the government is set to run out of money on November 17th. With no Speaker the House cannot pass any legislation. That means no laws can be passed and no money can be directed to Ukraine or Israel.
For me the largest problem is this: there does not appear any Republican who can gain enough support. It was McCarthy, then Scalise, now Jordan and Scott. A small group of conservative Republicans don’t appear to be aware of the chaos they are causing and the damage they are doing. They appear to enjoy the limelight and crave job security above all else. They claim to demand that government do fewer things and do them better but their actions belie a different agenda. I pray that good sense begin to take over and they get back to their jobs.
We all knew this was going to happen but it doesn’t make it better: the House of Representatives has no Speaker. With our two party system the selection of the House Speaker has been little more than a formality: every two years we swear in a new Congress and the leader is chosen by the Representatives. It’s almost always a straight party vote. But this past January we elected 221 Republicans and 212 Democrats (two seats are currently vacant). Representative Kevin McCarthy expected to be elected easily but a small group of ultra conservative members refused to support him at first. After fifteen ballots these Representatives agreed to support him with one condition: any one person can call for a “motion to vacate.” That means any representatives can call for a vote to see if they still want him.
When Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida called for such a motion. As expected no Democrats voted to support him, but 8 Republicans did the same. McCarthy was stripped of his role as Speaker (though not as a Representative) by a vote of 216 to 210.
So what’s next? Clearly the Republicans need to meet and choose someone they can all agree on. But that’s not going to be easy. The eight Republicans who refused to support McCarthy have not (as of yet) coalesced around one person that all the other Republicans can agree to. It may become a difficult fight.
I have two primary concerns about this:
The government is only funded until November 17; both houses of Congress and President Biden will need to agree on funding the government. If they don’t most government employees will not be paid and will not be allowed to work. Some of those deemed essential workers (e.g. TSA and the military) will be required to work but will not be paid. I’ve always felt that public service is a noble vocation but it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to work for the government given this level of nonsense. Unlike most members of Congress many government employees don’t have the luxury of missing paychecks. Last week I met an Air Force Reservist who was headed to Poland for several months while his family stays here. We’re asking enough of him without demanding that he do this for free.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022 we pledged monetary support to Ukraine. We’ve never seriously considered sending troops there but we found it important that Ukraine remain free and Russia be defeated. Some of the most conservative Republicans now believe we should end that support which would almost certainly lead to a Russian victory over Ukraine. I worry that these Republicans will not support a speaker without a pledge to abandon Ukraine. Even if you don’t think Ukraine is worthy of our support I believe it’s naive to think that a Russian win would satisfy Putin. Ukraine isn’t a member of NATO and we’re not obligated to support them. But if Russia then decides to invade Poland or one of the Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) they are NATO members and we are obligated to come to their aid. Article 5 of the treaty states that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. If we abandon Ukraine now it will require a larger support somewhere else.
As for now, fasten your seatbelts. Congress is going to be a bumpy ride.