The U.S. Senate has become notorious for its filibusters, but what many observers may not realize is that the U.S. House also used to have unlimited debate. It wasn't until the late 19th century that the chamber ended the practice and established limits on how long House members could hold the floor.
That is, for nearly all members. There's an exception to the institution's rules: Party leaders are allowed to speak as long as they want. On Capitol Hill, they're known as "magic minutes" or "leadership minutes" — a privilege only available to the House Speaker, the House majority leader, and the House minority leader.
In 2018, for example, Nancy Pelosi — the House minority leader at the time — stood on the House floor for over eight hours, seeking a vote on protections for Dreamers. It broke the institution's record for the longest speech ever delivered on the House floor.
Last night, her Republican counterpart broke her record. NBC News reported this morning:
House Democrats postponed a much-anticipated vote on President Joe Biden's social safety net and climate package early Friday morning after Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy delayed a final vote with a record-long, wide-ranging and often angry speech.
After the Congressional Budget Office completed its review of the Democrats' Build Back Better package in the late afternoon, the majority party's leadership set the stage for a floor vote. The House Speaker said she finally had the votes to pass the legislation. Members would have a floor debate ahead of a vote on final passage.
What we didn't know was that McCarthy — one of the three members who can exploit "magic minutes" — would hold the floor for a very long time. The California Republican began speaking at 8:38 p.m. eastern and didn't stop until 5:04 a.m. this morning.
This broke the record Pelosi set in 2018, which was very likely the point of the GOP's performance.
Indeed, the point was not to make a powerful case against the pending legislation. At one point during McCarthy's remarks, the Speaker's office released a fact-check statement, flagging some of the Republican's more egregious errors. It read in part, "During this evening's temper tantrum, Minority Leader McCarthy did everything he could to avoid talking about the deficit reducing, inflation crushing Build Back Better Act."
As a rhetorical matter, the GOP leader's remarks were ... how do I put this charitably ... curious. McCarthy, who's never been much of an orator, meandered from topic to topic, making strange assertions that seemed to have very little to do with the topic at hand. Democrats didn't seem especially angry by the display, so much as they were bemused by his directionless speech.
As midnight approached, journalist Aaron Ruper tweeted an excerpt from his remarks and noted, "Kevin McCarthy's brain is just randomly firing now. He's yelling whatever fragment of a thought enters his head."
And that was roughly six hours before the remarks ended.
If the GOP leader's goal was to create a spectacle, he succeeded. If he wanted to show off for his members — whose support he'll need for Speaker if his party takes back the majority — he certainly did that, too.
What McCarthy did not do was make a practical difference. Democrats were going to pass the bill last night, but instead they'll pass it this morning. What's more, most Democrats left the floor around 1 a.m., which meant the Republican leader was effectively talking to himself and his allies for several hours, for no reason other than performative outrage. Even some GOP members "seemed agitated."
"I don't know if they think because they left, I'm going to stop," McCarthy said in the early morning, referring to Democrats. "I'm not."
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio gently interrupted McCarthy to say, "Keep going. No one is listening."
The House will reconvene in just a few minutes. By all appearances, the Build Back Better Act will pass soon after.