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The House GOP chose Matt Gaetz over the Constitution

Yes, the 14th Amendment’s disqualification clause applies to members of Congress. But it's up to the House to enforce it.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., was one of the loudest voices spreading former President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud in the aftermath of the 2020 election. And yet he reportedly spent the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol trying to reach Trump to urge him to call off his supporters. That deeply ironic moment appears to have been an aberration. More than two years later, Gaetz is still in Congress — and still promoting the same incendiary rhetoric that suggests that voters aren’t the ones who should have the last say in who runs Washington.

Gaetz was standing alongside Trump at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday when, referring to himself and Trump, he said, “We know that only through force do we make any change in a corrupt town like Washington, D.C.” At best, it’s a striking advocacy of the idea that “might means right” over support for debate and compromise. At worst, it’s an endorsement from a sitting congressman of the sort of political violence we saw two years ago.

We know Trump’s supporters believed in the necessity of force as they tore through the halls of Congress on Jan. 6 after Trump told them in his speech on the Ellipse: “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Despite the horrible events that transpired afterward, here’s Gaetz saying essentially the same thing.

Despite the horrible events that transpired afterward, here’s Gaetz saying essentially the same thing.

According to the House Jan. 6 committee’s investigation and final report, Trump’s words, actions and inactions showed his support for the insurrection that took place in his name. His attempt to corruptly obstruct Congress’ counting of electoral votes, the main goal of the insurrectionists, is the basis for one of four counts special counsel Jack Smith has brought against him. It’s also the conclusion of a draft law review article, which I wrote about Monday, arguing that Trump is ineligible for office based on the 14th Amendment’s clause disqualifying officials who support insurrections from holding office.

Multiple people have emailed to ask why the same couldn’t be said of members of Congress like Gaetz who supported the insurrection, both before the attack and after, in the halls of the Capitol. The answer is “it can and should,” according to the article’s authors:

[E]ach house has power to “Judge of the Elections, Returns, and Qualifications” of “its own Members.” Since one of those qualifications is non-disqualification under Section Three, each house can and must judge whether Section Three forbids the seating of a member. This judgment is conclusive, and it operates as a crucial constitutional backstop for each house. No state or group of voters can force upon the House or Senate a Member it judges to be constitutionally disqualified. Indeed, even federal courts could not properly do so.

With the House’s power to judge the “qualifications” of its members, its members would be well within their power to find that multiple Republican members are disqualified for their support of the Jan. 6 insurrection, including Gaetz. I don’t have the space here to go in depth about why this process differs from recent incidents featuring Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who won out against a lawsuit aiming to block her from the 2022 ballot under the 14th Amendment, and George Santos of New York, whose lies had many arguing he shouldn’t be seated this year. But in brief, neither of them met the requirements for disqualification the amendment lays out the same way several of their colleagues would.

Meanwhile, I’ve previously argued that at least six of Trump’s congressional allies should be booted from the House for their support for his attempt to cling to power. It’s a different process, with a higher bar, but still well within the rights of the House to expel them, as the draft law review article’s authors also note.

The better question, then, is: “Why hasn’t the 14th Amendment been upheld by Congress?” The answer: House Republicans have chosen power over the Constitution. That primarily falls on the party’s leadership, especially Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. At the opening of the 118th Congress — the ideal time to challenge the seating of pro-insurrection members — McCarthy prioritized winning the gavel, which he couldn’t have won had he punished members whose votes he needed. Refusing to seat even four members would have been enough to prevent the GOP from having a majority at all.

Any member of the House GOP could have raised a point of order in January, questioning the legitimacy of the pro-insurrectionists’ holding their seats.

Given his desire to be in power and his furious attempts to discredit the Jan. 6 committee’s findings, it makes sense that McCarthy would be silent about pro-insurrection House members. But any member of the House GOP could have raised a point of order in January, questioning the legitimacy of the pro-insurrectionists’ holding their seats. If the chair then put that question to the members-elect, there’s a nonzero chance it could have passed with Democratic support. That having been said, it’s disappointing that no Democrat attempted something similar. Even if it was in the end voted down, it would have showcased a respect for the Constitution’s anti-insurrection provision that would haunt the GOP for the rest of this Congress and beyond.

The best reason I can glean as to why that didn’t happen is also political: Why draw attention away from the farce that is the divided GOP by forcing it to stand united against what it could frame as an external power grab? That having been said, a Democratic member of the House could choose to spend the rest of this session raising a point of order whenever a colleague who has given aid and comfort to insurrectionists rises to speak.

Not raising the issue gives members like Gaetz the belief that their words won’t come back to haunt them. Thus, he brazenly stands next to the man who fired up a mob that tried to subvert the will of American voters and suggests that his supporters need to make a show of force.