The Abysmal Choices for House Speaker

The crisis of terror in Israel has made it even more urgent that the House of Representatives move past its schoolyard infighting, elect itself a speaker and demonstrate that the United States still has a functional government, one that can play a significant role in supporting democratic allies around the globe. So far, however, the Republican House majority has shown no indication it is up to the job.

Only two candidates, Representatives Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio, are officially running for speaker. Neither seems to have a majority of Republicans locked up yet, and both are trying to appeal to the party’s worst instincts — making it clear they would perpetuate the chaos that was unleashed during the reign of Kevin McCarthy, who was overthrown by a group of far-right rebels on Oct. 3. In several ways, Mr. Scalise and Mr. Jordan would probably be worse.

Both express opposition to the Biden administration’s request for additional military aid to Ukraine. Like Mr. McCarthy, both have cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 presidential race, and voted against certifying the election results, a permanent stain on their reputations. But for anyone who cares about basic governmental function, the most worrisome part is that they also seem to be repudiating the two moments when Mr. McCarthy defused a fiscal crisis in recent months — over the debt ceiling and the threatened government shutdown. They want the House to use more “leverage” in its battles against President Biden.

“Leverage,” in case you missed the constant reference in the battle over Mr. McCarthy, is a Washington euphemism for blackmail. By holding the country’s credit hostage, or shutting down government functions, a small band of wrecking-ball ideologues can try to get a win on some unrelated matter. The anti-McCarthyites said he failed to use his speakership to rewrite the rules of government in Washington.

“Many of us had begged the speaker, pleaded with the speaker repeatedly, to utilize the debt ceiling to leverage spending cuts and reforms,” Bob Good, Republican of Virginia, told the House before the big vote. “Instead, he negotiated an unlimited increase to the debt ceiling.”

Of the two ways to achieve political success in a divided government, leverage is the poisoned choice. The more effective path, the one that used to be employed regularly in Washington, is to cut deals and make compromises with your opponents, even if they are occasionally painful and at odds with your principles. That’s how Lincoln operated, that’s how Lyndon Johnson pushed through his Great Society and civil rights bills, and it’s how Obamacare was created.

But ever since Newt Gingrich’s era, the idea of compromising with the Democratic Party, of putting bills on the House floor that both sides can support, has been anathema to Republicans. Speakers from that party who do so tend to lose their jobs or quit under pressure, as John Boehner and Mr. McCarthy learned. The preferred method of dealing with Democrats now is to extort them, and though that usually fails, the mere act of trying brings great cheer to extremists who view centrists from both sides as the rotten core of the “uniparty.” (An exception occurred in 2011, when Barack Obama was forced to make massive spending cuts to prevent a default caused by Republicans.)

Mr. McCarthy abandoned leverage to keep the government open through mid-November, and earlier to prevent a ruinous default. But both candidates to replace him have made it clear to their restive caucus that they intend to use the leverage he discarded.

“If we stay united, we can preserve leverage for the House to secure tangible wins in our impending policy fights,” Mr. Scalise, the current majority leader, said in announcing his candidacy for speaker last week. Mr. Scalise, as a member of the leadership team, voted for the recent deal to prevent a shutdown, but the signal he sent to the rebels was unmistakable.

Representative Steve Scalise of LouisianaCredit…Mark Peterson for The New York Times

And Mr. Jordan didn’t even need to send a signal. He was one of a minority of House Republicans who voted against the shutdown deal, against the wishes of his putative ally, Mr. McCarthy, and his credentials as a legislative bomb-thrower are already impeccable. He has helped lead Republican shutdown efforts at least three times: over defunding the Affordable Care Act, over cutting money to Planned Parenthood and (during the Trump administration) over building a border wall. He told Punchbowl News a few days ago that he would insist on refusing to spend any additional money on processing new migrants, though that would violate U.S. asylum law.

Donald Trump’s “Complete & Total Endorsement!” of Mr. Jordan — and his debasement of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he presented to Mr. Jordan in 2021 as a reward for feverishly defending him in his impeachments and during the Russia investigation — tell you pretty much all you need to know about what kind of leader Mr. Jordan would be.

Mr. Scalise is less incendiary than Mr. Jordan, but is no more likely to end his chamber’s chaos and bring any degree of bipartisanship to the House than was Mr. McCarthy. He blamed “Soros-backed elements of the Democratic Party” for committing acts of violence against Republicans. Long after the 2020 election was over, he continued to suggest the outcome was stolen, relying on a theory about the primacy of state legislatures that was shot down by the Supreme Court. He had to apologize for speaking in 2002 at a white nationalist group headed by David Duke, but also described himself, according to a columnist, as like “David Duke without the baggage,” and opposed a holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Republicans will spend the next few days trying to determine whether they have the votes to elect any speaker, and it’s possible their internal discord could go on for weeks. You might think that the world’s desperate need for a morally persuasive American leadership would pressure them to make a responsible decision, but given the abysmal choice they are facing, that outcome is hard to imagine.

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