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The GOP settled on a speaker, but the chaos is just beginning

The election of Kevin McCarthy as speaker doesn’t represent the end of the chaos; it marks the beginning of the chaos.

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The process of electing a House speaker — usually, one of Congress’ easiest and most straightforward tasks — came to a merciful end in the early hours of Saturday morning, at which point many members expressed relief. Their chaotic crisis, unrivaled since the mid-19th century, was over and the new Republican majority in the chamber could finally put this embarrassment behind them.

That collective exhale was understandable. It was also misplaced. The election of Kevin McCarthy as speaker doesn’t represent the end of the chaos; it marks the beginning of the chaos. This New York Times report summarized the landscape nicely:

Representative Kevin McCarthy’s historically long slog to become speaker of the House has made one thing abundantly clear: The United States should brace for the likelihood of a Congress in perpetual disarray for the next two years.

McCarthy’s ascension closes an unfortunate chapter for the new House GOP majority, but while the dramatic chapter was memorable and historic, it was also brief. The rest of the story is likely to be considerably worse.

Before McCarthy prevailed, the House Republican conference had a small advantage in the chamber. It had a radicalized faction, overtly hostile toward compromise. It had weak and directionless leaders. It looked like a divided, post-policy party, lacking anything resembling a serious governing agenda.

After McCarthy prevailed, the House Republican conference looked exactly the same as it did before early Saturday’s vote.

Mockery of the circumstances might be satisfying, but it overlooks the significance of where the institution finds itself as the new Congress begins in earnest. As the Times’ report added, the prolonged fight over the speaker’s gavel has “left little doubt that Congress as an entity would struggle to carry out even its most basic duties in the coming two years, such as funding the government, including the military, or avoiding a catastrophic federal debt default.”

If House Republicans needed 15 ballots and back-room deals to elect a speaker, how realistic is it to think this ungovernable bunch will approve a budget? Or appropriations bills? Or a farm bill? Or other must-pass legislation that wasn’t much of a problem when Democrats were in charge?

Indeed, in his desperation, McCarthy struck a deal with some of his most radicalized members that will make it easier for far-right lawmakers to try to fire him in the event the new speaker displeases them in any way — necessarily leaving him in a weaker position if/when he tries to lead, all while altering the legislative process that puts more power in extremists’ hands.

Much of the political world shook its head in disbelief after the weeklong debacle, but the real crises are on the horizon.

On the first day of balloting last week, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut argued via Twitter, “The problem is ... this isn’t just today. This is going to be every day in the House Republican majority. It’s not just that they won’t be able to govern. It’s that they are going to be an embarrassing public train wreck while they refuse to govern.”

That was true at the start of last week’s process, and it’s even more unavoidable now.