Two weeks ago the nation witnessed the political spectacle of Republicans in the House of Representatives battling each other for four days and 15 ballots to elect their speaker. Nothing like it has happened in Congress since before the Civil War.
At one point in the chaos, the incoming Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee had to be physically restrained from punching out the face of Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, the chief instigator of the hard-right rebellion.
It is easy to dismiss these events as a clown show by politicians who can’t get their act together. But that misses the more urgent point.
What happened was not political buffoonery or an accident. It was the act of politicians desperate for power and willing to pay any price to get it. That spells enormous risk for the country in the months ahead.
Take Kevin McCarthy, the new Republican speaker. He is a lifetime politician of the chameleon variety. His chief aim has always been to climb the political ladder and he is willing to change his colors as needed.
In the days after the violent assault of the U.S. Capitol two years ago by extremist Trump supporters, McCarthy declared on the House floor, “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
Just a few weeks later, he was off to Mar-a-Lago to bow to ex-President Trump and cement a close alliance, one that proved essential to his election as speaker.
It is also worth noting neither McCarthy nor any of the Republican House members — except for one noble representative from Pennsylvania — could be bothered last week to walk to the Capitol steps for a ceremony honoring the law enforcement officers who protected them during the riot two years before.
Perhaps they worried it might signal disloyalty to Trump.
Republicans who staged the holdout against McCarthy and held the Congress at bay for a week are no fools. They are shrewd political strategists. Their aim is power. They understood that with the Republicans’ thin majority in the House they could bend the rest of their party to their will. With each consecutive ballot loss, McCarthy went back to them to beg and to make more concessions.
We still don’t know all the secret promises made behind closed doors in the dark of night to secure power. They certainly include more seats for the extreme right rebels on powerful committees and more power to hold the legislative process hostage.
They also include cuts in the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics. Its job is to look into matters such as New York’s new representative, George Santos, lying to voters about nearly every aspect of his background.
The drama spearheaded by the rebels two weeks ago also offered them another big win — raking in piles of campaign cash. Every time they forced another vote against McCarthy, Gaetz sent out a fundraising email boasting about it.
House Republicans voting for McCarthy had to sort out how to maneuver the minefield of a party at war with itself. Some cast quiet votes for the would-be speaker, careful not to put themselves in the political sights of the rebels.
Here in western New York, new Congresswoman Claudia Tenney tried to play it both ways. In the balloting, she sided with McCarthy. Then she went on Fox News to praise the uprising against him, saying: “This is what it really looks like to have a constitutional republic that’s self-governing. I love that we are having a debate.”
Tenney was just playing politics and trying to put lipstick on a pig.
I am reasonably certain Vladimir Putin loved seeing the House of Representatives melting down for a week, as did the authoritarian governments of China and Iran. Only a fool believes Republicans loved looking like clowns in a circus for four days.
For the Republican extremists behind the rebellion, it was just a dress rehearsal. While their minority status among House Republicans can’t actually pass legislation, they have obstruction options ahead for getting their way.
That includes forcing another shut down of the federal government later this year, and causing the U.S. to default on its debt for the first time in the nation’s history. This would be a step into the financial abyss.
And yet another case of political hostage taking. Only the next time the hostage will not be a hapless Kevin McCarthy desperate to give away anything to become House speaker. It will be all of us.
Columnist Jim Shultz, a resident of Lockport, New York, is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center. Reach him at email@example.com.