‘This is chaos’: What it’s like to be a brand-new L.A. representative amid the McCarthy speaker madness

A woman gestures as she speaks into a microphone
“We have our bags of popcorn, and we are watching,” Rep.-elect Sydney Kamlager-Dove of Los Angeles said in an interview hours before the House was set to hold its 12th vote for House speaker.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass sent a pair of text messages to her successor in Congress this week.

“She said: ‘What’s happening? This is incredible. So much drama??’” Rep.-elect Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Los Angeles) recalled in an interview in her congressional office Friday morning. “And I responded, ‘I didn’t know this was what I was getting into.’”

Kamlager-Dove’s office was largely undecorated. Technically, it’s not even hers yet.

Like every other representative-elect, Kamlager-Dove hasn’t been officially sworn in to office. The House, according to its own rules, can’t do anything — swear in members, form committees or pass legislation — until it elects a speaker.


But through 11 ballots over three days, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) has been unable to win over any of the 20 conservative hardliners opposed to electing him to the post.

The House was set to meet again Friday for a 12th vote. Meanwhile, Kamlager-Dove doesn’t even know which committees she’ll be assigned to.

“I know nothing other than I have to show up on the floor at 12 o’clock,” she said.

Excited family members who flew to Washington to celebrate Kamlager-Dove’s swearing-in have already returned home disappointed.

Kamlager-Dove’s mother bought her a silk corsage to wear for the oath of office on her first day of Congress. But after her family “flew thousands of miles to see their daughter, their wife, their mother, get sworn in,” she said, “that moment was snatched away from them.”

“For someone like me that travels 3,000 miles twice a week to do work, being away from my family is really hard,” she said. “Having them see and understand what I do is really important, and none of that was availed to them because of this.”

Kamlager-Dove’s staff is feeling the pinch, too. She has no district office in California — because she’s not yet an official member of Congress — and her aides are unable to push legislation or help constituents.


“You can’t have staff come into the office and take calls and help constituents. For members that have been reelected, they have an infrastructure already in place,” Kamlager-Dove explained. “For new members like myself, staff don’t have access to computers, and they can’t open new casework. So if you have constituents calling and they have issues with the IRS, they have issues with a visa, they have issues with a birth certificate, they have issues with Social Security, we cannot help them.”

Kamlager-Dove said her takeaway from the speaker standoff is the importance of counting votes and building relationships with colleagues. As the embattled McCarthy and his allies negotiate with far-right conservatives to empower a faction within the House Freedom Caucus with rules changes to win more support, the 20 conservative Republicans who have opposed McCarthy for speaker 11 times have nominated or cast votes for Reps. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) — and even former President Trump.

“It’s important to realize that 11 votes have been votes of no confidence, and once you become speaker — if, in fact, you become speaker — how are you going to lead a caucus that does not respect you?” she asked. “Trust is incredibly important. Trust has not been built in the course of these 11 votes. Obviously, there’s no trust with the Republicans, and how can Democrats trust someone who’s giving away every single thing that is important to how the House governs and rules?”

“People seem less inclined to do the work that is required to make government run and more inclined to show their egos,” she lamented.

As Republicans continue to squabble over the speakership, Kamlager-Dove has at least given herself something to work on: her facial expressions, which are occasionally captured by C-SPAN cameras that have been allowed to roam free because the House is operating without any formal rules, which include limits on TV camera angles. The House can only vote on a rules package after a speaker is elected and members are sworn in.

“I’m working really hard to manage my side eye and my facial expressions,” she said. “I’ve gotten plenty of texts from people who say: ‘I see you on C-SPAN. You’re rolling your eyes at somebody.’”


She also takes advantage of Democrats’ standing ovations to stretch and said she’s learned to put some healthy snacks in her purse. One bright spot of spending hours and hours on the floor casting the same roll call vote, she said, is that she’s been able to get more face time with Democratic colleagues than she otherwise would and to scope out who’s who among the Republicans.

Kamlager-Dove might get a few more opportunities to get to know her colleagues during future high-stakes battles on the House floor.

With an empowered right wing in a narrow Republican majority, Congress could soon find itself in two more standoffs. Later this year, the House will have to vote on a measure to fund the government and a separate effort to raise the federal debt ceiling and avoid a default on the nation’s debt.

The same bloc of conservatives who have the votes to block McCarthy from the speakership could withhold their critical votes in the government funding and debt ceiling fights, leading to further congressional crises.

Kamlager-Dove is aware of that risk.

“There are certain members of the Republican Party that ran to dismantle government,” she said. “I have to hope that there are more members of the Republican Party that believe government can do good things. Those people need to stand up and show up. This is not healthy debate that we are seeing. This is chaos.”

In the meantime, in lieu of an elected leader the House has effectively been run, for the first time ever, by a Black woman, House clerk Cheryl Johnson, whom one House Democrat joked Thursday should serve as speaker.


Democrats all have different ideas and opinions about how the fight for the gavel will be resolved, Kamlager-Dove said.

“At the end of the day, unfortunately, we have our bags of popcorn, and we are watching,” she said. “This is schadenfreude, really. They have to get their act together. That man has to find a way to get to 218 votes. Who will it be if it’s not him? Figure it out. You are adults.”