The clown show on display in the U.S. House of Representatives this past month would be laughable if it did not have such serious implications for geopolitics and American leadership worldwide. A small group of right-wing extremists in the Republican Party—numbering less than a dozen legislators out of 435—has been holding the country’s budget processes hostage. They are doing this not for any achievable purpose, but simply to attract media attention and prove that they could be obstructive. The consequence of this is the canceling of further U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, and the bolstering of Vladimir Putin’s long-term efforts to dominate that country and Eurasia as a whole.
The Republican Party has triggered shutdowns of the U.S. government in the past, under Newt Gingrich in the 1990s and Ted Cruz in the 2010s. They were in effect holding a gun to the country’s collective head, threatening to pull the trigger if they didn’t get their way on certain budget priorities like the canceling of Obamacare. Neither of these prior efforts were successful, and they hurt the standing of the Republican Party in subsequent elections.
___STEADY_PAYWALL___This time around, the threatened shutdown was not so much a contest between Republicans and Democrats as one between this small coterie of extremists and the rest of the Republican Party. The latter, following its poor showing in the 2022 midterms, holds a bare five-vote majority in the House, while the Democrats continue to control the Senate and the presidency. Even if the Republicans acted as a unified bloc, they could not get their preferences enacted into law. They face a choice of working with Democrats or stopping the system from passing a budget altogether.
But the party is not unified. Not only does the small MAGA wing hold a veto over the budget process, but it holds a veto over the party as a whole. The arithmetic of their narrow majority is what led to 15 successive votes within the party caucus last January to elect as Speaker Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who in the process agreed that any single member could undermine his position and call for a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair. After McCarthy agreed to a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government open with the help of Democrats on September 29, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida pulled the trigger on McCarthy, leaving the lower house leaderless and unable to act on anything. The CR, which kicks the can down the road only until November, could get sufficient Republican votes only by stripping out aid to Ukraine.
America has become a vetocracy, or rule by veto. Its political system spreads power out very broadly, in ways that give many individual players the power to stop things. By contrast it provides few mechanisms to force collective decisions reflecting the will of the majority. When combined with the extreme degree of polarization in the underlying society, this leads to total gridlock where basic functions of government like deliberating on and passing yearly budgets become nearly impossible.
The ability of a single extremist member of the House to topple the Speaker and shut down Congress’ ability to legislate is not the only manifestation of vetocracy on display in 2023. The Senate has a rule that gives any individual Senator the right to in effect block any Executive Branch appointment for any reason. Alabama’s junior Senator Tommy Tuberville has been using this privilege to block all military promotions. Other Senators are blocking other appointments in different cabinet departments.
Cloture rules are precisely the kind of mechanisms designed to force decisions by cutting off debate and holding votes. For some years now, the Senate has required a supermajority of 60 votes to call the question, making routine legislating very difficult.
It is very bad that the Republican Party is coalescing around opposition to further support for Ukraine. What is particularly distressing is that recent poll data indicates that a majority of Americans continue to support such aid. After I drafted this piece last week, Hamas launched a terror attack on Israel that has already killed hundreds of Israelis. This calls for strong U.S. support, but Congress cannot act on anything without a Speaker. In the U.S. system as currently configured, minorities routinely seek to use their veto power to extort concessions for which there is no majority support, and are willing to burn the whole house down if they don’t get their way. These internal divisions exacerbated by our vetocratic political system are America’s greatest source of weakness in its ability to act on the world stage today.
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