Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including The New York Times bestseller “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
We have grown accustomed to sleepwalking through the dysfunction of modern Republican Party politics. Americans wake up to see another outlandish story of things having gone wrong in Washington and our response is to yell at our phones, nod our heads disapprovingly, shrug our shoulders and move on.
But there are high costs to the way that the Party of Trump, originally the Party of Lincoln, does its business.
What are the consequences of the extreme rightward drift of the modern GOP?
In moments of international crisis, such as the one we are now living through, the party has left a key branch of government paralyzed. Because they decided to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and have already spent many days consumed by chaos and infighting, the “people’s house” still has no head.
A day after a majority of House Republicans voted for him in a party conference, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana dropped out of the race after he realized he wouldn’t get the 217 votes needed to win the speakership. On Friday, it was Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio who won the vote within the party, but he also faces an uphill battle to get the 217 votes.
With a floor vote postponed until next week, Jordan will have the weekend to try to unify the party behind him —and will get a few days more than Scalise did to fantasize about winning the post. The election of Jordan, who former Speaker John Boehner called a “legislative terrorist,” would put one of the most radical members of the party in charge, someone who would have little problem sending the government into a shutdown.
This comes as the world is on fire. The Middle East has erupted following the brutal and horrific attacks that Hamas orchestrated against Israeli citizens. As a result, Israel has started a devastating bombing attack on Gaza in an effort to wipe out the terrorist organization, and a ground battle appears imminent.
At the same time, war in Europe continues to rage between Russia and Ukraine while policymakers nervously watch China’s relations with Taiwan, which it claims as its own. And this does not include many other areas of instability, including Guatemala, where pro-democracy protests are rocking the country.
Yet back in Washington, Congress can’t do its work. Without a speaker, the House is unable to carry out its responsibilities of controlling the purse strings for defense spending, maintaining oversight over the executive branch, and taking part in national security deliberations. Because a small group of Republicans decided that McCarthy should pay for the sin of working with Democrats to keep the government open, the party is now squabbling over the next leader instead of carrying out the important functions of the lower chamber.
If and when Republicans finally string together enough votes to elect a House speaker, the outlook for progress will likely still be bleak. Speaker Newt Gingrich’s move to shut down the federal government in 1995 when trying to force President Bill Clinton’s hand on spending cuts set an unfortunate precedent. A new normal has since taken hold and government shutdowns are no longer an anomaly. Given that the latest stopgap funding bill only keeps the government open until November, time is of the essence.
Modern Republican politics has forced officials to focus on the ongoing chaos on Capitol Hill rather than on long-term problems such as immigration, inequality and climate change. Republicans have refused to enter into serious negotiations over legislative solutions. Intense dysfunction handcuffs federal officials and pushes the most consequential of issues to the back burner.
A party that can’t and won’t govern hurts everyone. A Republican Party once committed to conservative principles has become a party committed to chaos. The nation deserves better than this. We need better than this.
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