Not long after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) stunned the political world by ending his bid for Speaker, National Review's Rich Lowry asked the Republican whether the House of Representatives is still "governable."
"I don't know," McCarthy replied. "Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom."
The question was a good one, as was the response, though its subtext matters. We know, of course, that the House can be governed -- as recently as 2010, under Nancy Pelosi's leadership, the institution functioned effectively and efficiently. Some Americans approved of the chamber's policymaking and some didn't, but no one questioned whether the House itself could function as a legislative body.
The more salient question is more partisan: are Republicans still capable of being a governing party? The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty summarized the broader dynamic quite nicely in just 23 words:
Less than a year after a sweeping electoral triumph, Republicans are on the verge of ceasing to function as a national political party.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told reporters yesterday that his House Republican conference has descended into a "banana republic."
And while that may seem harsh, especially as an intra-party condemnation, there's simply no denying that this is a party lacking in leadership, direction, and purpose. A year ago, voters rewarded the party with considerable power, though Republicans simply lack the means and the collective will to exercise that power with even a modicum of maturity.
What political observers should not do, however, is consider this a new development. It's not.
For several years, much of the political establishment has fiercely resisted the idea that congressional Republicans have been radicalized. A wide variety of Beltway pundits and insiders have even blamed President Obama for not successfully compromising and striking deals with the radicalized GOP -- if only the president would lead like a leading leader, Republicans would transform into constructive, mainstream policymakers. This is a problem, we've been told repeatedly, that schmoozing can solve.
The lazy punditry was wrong. Since early 2011, legislative productivity has reached depths without modern precedent. The list of major legislative accomplishments is effectively empty. Bills have routinely been brought to the floor for passage, only to have the GOP leadership discover their own members are defying their own party's legislative priorities.
Under Republican leadership -- or what passes for "leadership" in 2015 -- the legislative branch has careened between hostage standoffs and self-imposed crises, over and over again, to the point that some have begun to see these ridiculous circumstances, never before seen in the American tradition, as the new normal.
And now, House Republicans can't even elect their own Speaker.
It is, to be sure, a national embarrassment, but it's also the culmination of years of intensifying extremism. GOP disarray can no longer be ignored, but let's not pretend it's unexpected. This motley crew has been held together by smoke and mirrors, when it's been held together at all.
The Republican establishment is losing its strength and its numbers, while right-wing insurgents, with an insatiable appetite for confrontation, gain influence. The very idea of the House passing meaningful legislation into law anytime soon is laughable.
About a year from now, GOP officials nationwide will ask Americans to give Republicans control over every branch of the government, which at a certain level seems ridiculous -- if it's not altogether clear the Republican Party can still function, how can it be trusted to govern responsibly?