Anarchists of the House
A few months ago, Eric Cantor was ready to bring his latest brainchild, the “Helping Sick Americans Now” bill, to the House floor. The move was pure Cantor—a smarmy, ultrapartisan ploy. The bill proposed to eliminate funds the Obama administration needs to set up and run the health-care exchanges that are the central mechanism in the health-care law, but then Cantor’s bill would use those funds to help a handful of sick people get health insurance. There was no chance this, or anything like it, would be signed into law, as Obama obviously would not agree to tear down a program to insure millions of Americans in return for insuring a tiny fraction of that number. It was a message vote whose purpose was “embarrassing Obamacare,” as one conservative activist gloated, by forcing Obama to deny immediate aide for the uninsured. As a soulless exercise in disingenuous spin, it was well conceived.
It failed, however, because a crucial faction of ultraconservative House Republicans threatened to vote against it. The trouble was that Cantor’s bill purported to “fix” Obamacare rather than eliminate it. “Why the hell do we want to fix it?” complained conservative pundit Erick Erickson. “We should want to repeal it.” Since they have already voted 37 times to repeal Obamacare, one might think that the House Republicans’ appraisal of the law’s general merits had been made sufficiently clear. But just the pretense of working to improve the law, even while actually crippling it, offended the right. In the face of unmoved conservative opposition, Cantor had to pull his pet bill from the floor. It wound up embarrassing the House Republicans, not Obamacare.
Spectacles like this have turned into a regular feature of life in the Republican House. The party leadership draws up a bill that’s far too right-wing to ever become law, but it fails in the House because it isn’t right-wing enough. Sometimes, as with the attempts to repeal Obamacare, the failures don’t matter much, but in other instances the inability to pass legislation poses horrifying dangers. The chaos and dysfunction have set in so deeply that Washington now lurches from crisis to crisis, and once-dull, keep-the-lights-on rituals of government procedure are transformed into white-knuckle dramas that threaten national or even global catastrophe.
The Republican Party has spent 30 years careering ever more deeply into ideological extremism, but one of the novel developments of the Obama years is its embrace of procedural extremism. The Republican fringe has evolved from being politically shrewd proponents of radical policy changes to a gang of saboteurs who would rather stop government from functioning at all. In this sense, their historical precedents are not so much the Gingrich revolutionaries, or even their tea-party selves of a few years ago; the movement is more like the radical left of the sixties, had it occupied a position of power in Congress. And so the terms we traditionally use to scold bad Congresses—partisanship, obstruction, gridlock—don’t come close to describing this situation. The hard right’s extremism has bent back upon itself, leaving an inscrutable void of paranoia and formless rage and twisting the Republican Party into a band of anarchists.
And the worst is not behind us.