In the U.S. House, the first vote is the prerequisite to every other vote. Members are expected to assemble on the first day of a new Congress and choose a House speaker who can serve as the institution’s presiding officer. He or she can then swear in members, rules can be adopted and implemented, committees can take shape, and the chamber can begin to function as it should.
But the vote for speaker is the first domino. Until it falls, no other dominos can follow.
With this in mind, as Republicans struggle to a historic degree to choose a leader, the House, at least for now, is struggling to even exist. The New York Times explained overnight:
The personal and political drama that is playing out on the House floor as Representative Kevin McCarthy tries and fails repeatedly to become speaker has broader implications for the country, raising questions about what happens when one chamber of the legislative branch ceases to function. Without a speaker, the United States House of Representatives essentially becomes a useless entity.
This is not a situation in which elected officials can simply get to work on other issues while the speaker matter drags on: The institution that’s supposed to have 434 members right now instead has 434 representatives-elect, none of whom have any power or authority, except for the ability to vote for speaker.
And as of now, that’s not going especially well.
Indeed, it’s hard not to notice that as 2022 came to an end, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy and his members screamed bloody murder about an omnibus spending package that funded government operations through the end of the fiscal year. What they demanded at the time was a stopgap spending bill that would give the incoming GOP majority in the lower chamber a chance to exert its will in the process.
“Don’t worry,” McCarthy effectively told senators, “House Republicans can be counted on to pass a good bill.”
Senate Republican leaders ignored the pleas, and right about now, we can all be thankful that they did — because if GOP House members can’t even choose a speaker, the idea that they could pass spending legislation that would prevent a shutdown is plainly laughable.
Looking ahead, the chamber does not have any pending measures that require members’ immediate attention. In fact, the Senate isn’t even in session right now, so there are no pressing legislative matters that are going ignored.
But there are real-world consequences playing out on Capitol Hill. The Times’ report added, for example, “Returning lawmakers have lost their security clearances to get private briefings from the military and the intelligence agencies because, having not been sworn in, they are not officially members of Congress.”
What’s more, it’s not altogether clear whether any of these representatives-elect will be paid until they actually take office.
To be sure, it’s only been a few days, and it’s certainly possible the matter will be resolved soon. For now, the breakdown in the functionality of the House is more a curiosity than a crisis.
But the longer this lasts, the more problems will emerge — for constituent services, for federal oversight, and for a government that’s supposed to have a legislative branch capable of conducting routine business.