Column: The House Republicans’ shutdown politics are dumb and dumber

Aerial view of a man surrounded by reporters
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy is surrounded by reporters looking for updates on plans to fund the government and avert a shutdown, at the Capitol on Friday.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

For years, I stalked the Capitol halls amid Congress’ fiscal-year-end follies, waiting with other reporters for a breakthrough to end the latest faux crisis. I’m hard-pressed to recall a budget fight so politically self-defeating as the one now cleaving the House — waged for stupid reasons by stupid people.

And lest that sound too harsh, I defer to New York Rep. Mike Lawler, speaking to reporters about his fellow Republicans who’ve provoked the current chaos: “This is stupidity,” Lawler said. “It’s a clown show,” he added, the inevitable result of “running lunatics” for Congress.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Yup, the lunatics are fully in charge of Kevin McCarthy’s asylum, a.k.a. the House of Representatives. Speaker McCarthy most definitely is not in control, so Congress is careening toward an almost-certain government shutdown at the end of next week. He’s in a box, in fact, with no way out that doesn’t risk his being cashiered as speaker in a right-wing putsch.

Even if he survives, McCarthy could well forfeit the speakership after the 2024 elections: House Republicans’ MAGA mayhem and extremism (Impeach Joe Biden! Culture wars!) threaten to cost them the thin majority they won only last year.

You’d think they’d learn from the example of Senate Republicans, who’ve provided a contrast of pragmatism and relative moderation. (OK, there is Alabama’s Sen. Tommy “Coach” Tuberville, the one-man national security threat.) The same political analysts now downgrading House Republicans’ election chances have Senate Republicans favored to move from a minority to the majority in ’24.


Chaos in the House of Representatives

Sept. 20, 2023

McCarthy tries to use the fact that his majority is at risk — that either House Republicans hang together or too many of them will hang separately — to corral the crackpots. But there’s no reasoning with the unreasonable.

There’s no appealing for unity with narcissistic ideologues, such as Florida’s Rep. Matt Gaetz, who are more concerned about their own MAGA fandom and Fox News hits than about the country or their vulnerable party colleagues in swing districts.

Take it from the frustrated conservatives behind the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page: “Too many Republicans apparently come to Washington these days mainly to blow things up and count their TikTok followers.”

If dissenters continue to stymie his efforts to avoid a government shutdown, the speaker should stop accommodating them and reach out to Democrats to as he did when he secured an agreement with the White House on suspending the debt ceiling.

Sept. 22, 2023

The House Republicans’ worsening 2024 prospects are the party’s longer-term worry. Here’s McCarthy’s immediate dilemma: Given the nihilists’ knee-jerk opposition to just about any spending, he will ultimately need Democrats’ votes to help pass government-funding legislation that is acceptable to the Senate and President Biden.

As it stands, he can’t muster enough Republican votes to pass even a 30-day stopgap measure to keep federal operations funded past Sept. 30, when current spending ends with the fiscal year. Such measures typically have been relatively uncontroversial in budget wrestling matches, allowing negotiations to continue without a shutdown.

But compromising to get Democrats’ votes is anathema to the extremists: They’ve vowed to force a vote dethroning McCarthy should he do so.


Remember when the House speaker valiantly compromised with President Biden on the debt ceiling and averted a government shutdown? He started backtracking almost immediately.

Sept. 7, 2023

Poor Kevin. If he doesn’t make deals with Democrats, he and his party will be blamed for a shutdown — and for all the late federal payments, lapsed services, disrupted public works and closed federal offices that result. But if he cuts a deal, he could very well be toast as speaker. Don’t feel sorry for him, however. McCarthy sold his soul for his dream job, and to the very mutineers now seeking to sink him.

They’re bound to lose in the end. The government must carry on, and the president, the saner Senate and, yes, some bipartisan configuration of House members ultimately will see that it does, however long that takes. You’d think the House renegades would care that they look stupid. The legislative dynamic here is so basic — “so Civics 101,” as the Journal editorial noted — and yet some of these House Republicans just can’t seem to grasp it.

Think about it: The extremists won’t let Congress simply buy the time needed to reach a final agreement. They want to have the fights now — with just a week to go before midnight, Sept. 30 — over program spending levels and divisive amendments about Ukraine aid, abortion rights and immigration. Which makes a shutdown virtually inevitable.

Donald Trump’s enablers know that history’s heroes stand on principle, but they choose cowardice over courage.

Aug. 18, 2023

The extremists seem to believe they have unlimited legislative leverage to force their far-right demands into law. They don’t. The naysayers’ moronic efforts were captured by this headline in Politico: “House GOP in open warfare over doomed spending plan.” Let’s say they somehow managed to prevail on their home turf of the House, they’d be stopped cold by Senate Democrats, backed by some Republican senators, and the veto-wielding Biden.

Perhaps they could take a refresher class on “How a bill becomes law.” Or watch the classic “Schoolhouse Rock!” video sing-along version. Or simply go to the House’s own website, where the clerk has a nifty primer for grade-school students.

Never mind. The naysayers don’t care if they fail: In today’s Trumpian Republican Party, it’s all about the fight, all about “owning the libs.” It’s not like the extremists will pay a price for their intransigence. They generally reflect the combativeness of Republican voters in their safe, gerrymandered districts, who are likewise spoiling to tear Washington apart, no matter how destructive that is.

What’s unfortunate is that the Republicans who could well lose next year are among the party’s more rational members, the ones from swing districts, where voters recoil at Republican extremism. Because they’re not stupid.