Editor’s Note: Charlie Dent is a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who was chair of the House Ethics Committee from 2015 until 2017 and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies from 2015 until 2018. He is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The drawn-out spectacle that was the House speaker election laid bare the fracture and dysfunction within the House Republican conference. Mercifully, it ended after four days and 15 ballots.
But it’s worth noting that the House Speaker vote is the first – and typically the easiest – order of business. Judging by how difficult it was for Kevin McCarthy to secure the necessary votes to become speaker, there are plenty of bitter and protracted fights to come.
After McCarthy flipped a number of his original holdouts, his fate finally came down to Rep. Matt Gaetz, who found himself on the receiving end of ire from his GOP colleagues, including an understandably frustrated Rep. Mike Rogers, who angrily confronted the Florida congressman during the closing moments of the 14th ballot.
While congratulations are in order to Speaker McCarthy, the role has been considerably weakened due to the reported concessions he made during this unseemly political shakedown. Clearly, the hardliners exacted more than a pound of flesh from McCarthy and most of the House GOP conference that will make governing exceedingly difficult.
It begs the question: Is surrendering your way to victory really winning? And when will this appeasement ever end, considering it only makes this extremist faction more powerful?
First, a bit of recent history is in order to explain the dynamics of the House Republican conference.
Anyone surprised by the dysfunction this week should not have been; the House GOP conference has been growing increasingly dysfunctional over the past 13 years. The chaotic machinations witnessed by the world this week are simply a continuation of the dysfunction that began after the Tea Party swept the House in 2010.
Former Speaker John Boehner and Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and later Speaker Paul Ryan, were all tormented by a rejectionist wing of their own party on simple matters of governance. Funding the government, preventing default on the full faith and credit of the United States, providing emergency relief to states and communities ravaged by natural disasters, and reauthorizing essential programs all became dramatic, high stakes fights.
McCarthy was in leadership throughout this period and knew the dangers in dealing with this fringe group bent on sowing chaos in Congress. In fact, some of the same characters behind the chaos this week were among the group that fragged McCarthy in 2015 when he last tried to become speaker (and failed). Torturing the House Republican leadership and holding the GOP agenda hostage has become an ignoble strategy for these rabble rousers.
So here we are in 2023. The malcontents are still digging in – the only difference now is that there is a smaller governing majority. Actually, there really is no GOP governing majority at all, and the world will learn that soon enough.
A paradigm shift is long overdue. Pragmatic and rational Republican members, who bristled at the concessions McCarthy handed to Gaetz and his ilk, must force a course correction and change the dynamics.
In this case, retribution is a dish best served piping hot. It’s time for rational House Republicans to push back and use their leverage – starting with the rules package. They should give the chaos caucus a taste of their own medicine and say no until their reasonable demands are met.
They’ll be doing themselves – and McCarthy – a favor by clawing back some of the rules the speaker agreed to in his misguided deal. Giving in to the hardliners by allowing a single member to call for a vote to oust the speaker is a nonstarter; same for placing more members of the Freedom Caucus on the House Rules Committee.
The hardliners also secured a promise that a McCarthy-aligned super PAC would not intervene in open, safe seat GOP primaries. Why empower fringe elements even further in a way that will only produce more members of Congress who are disinterested in governing? These are inexplicable acts of self-destruction.
It’s time to stop feeding the crocodiles. Rational Republicans must stand, fight and resist. Two can play this game. If the diabolical demands and tactics of the chaos caucus didn’t upset them enough, consider this quote from Gaetz: “I ran out of things I could even imagine to ask for.”
Rational House Republicans need to protect themselves from the deal McCarthy agreed to in his own quest for the coveted gavel. Big legislative battles are looming, and Republicans will need all the procedural tools at their disposal to keep the country on track and out of the proverbial ditch, or worse. Tanking the worst of the proposed rules changes is in order.
And if there aren’t enough GOP votes for a more reasonable rules package, then it’s time to try something novel – bipartisanship. In this case, rational Republicans should reach across the aisle and work with Democrats to secure enough votes for a rules package that rolls back some of the hardliners’ demands.
The House’s ability to function is at stake. America’s authoritarian adversaries around the world point to democracy as outdated and unable to meet the needs of its people. It’s time to prove them wrong by stamping out the extremist elements within our midst who deny the results of free and fair elections and wish to wreak havoc on America’s hallowed temple of democracy.
This is the moment for rational House Republicans to make their stand.