Politics can be awfully unpredictable — especially leadership races in legislative bodies. As of this writing (Thursday afternoon), Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz was back in play for the speakership of the U.S. House of Representatives. Understanding that anything could happen by the time this column appears on Sunday, here’s our take on congressional leadership politics.
What are Chaffetz’ chances now that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) has stepped aside?Will he support an effort to draft Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan?
Pignanelli: “No one in America cares about this ‘Game of Thrones’ contest for speaker.” — Gov. Chris Christie
Chaffetz became well-known in Utah for his strong legs (as a BYU place-kicker), but recent events demonstrate he possesses a really good nose … for percolations in politics. He predicted McCarthy's caucus problems.
Arguably, Chaffetz had no choice but to run. McCarthy’s insinuation that the congressional Benghazi investigation was motivated to damage HillaryClinton is a kryptonite her campaign is using aggressively (the commercials are already airing) to preempt Republican attacks in future hearings. This may hamper Chaffetz’s Government Oversight Committee in the short term.
A dynamic driving the momentum behind Donald Trump are Republicans frustrated with Congress. Chaffetz is tapping into this sentiment with promises to pass GOP priority legislation and force vetoes from President Barack Obama — all music to conservative ears. Chaffetz is often mocked for his love of media exposure, but is also respected for incredible communication skills (a now valuable gift in light of McCarthy’s missteps). With McCarthy gone, Chaffetz will attempt a coalition to counter the other announced candidate, Florida Congressman Daniel Webster.
Politicos agree if the beloved Paul Ryan indicates an interest to serve, the election is over. Chaffetz is close to Ryan and will back efforts for a unanimous floor vote to name him as speaker. This guarantees Chaffetz retains chairmanship of his powerful committee.
Webb: Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is one of the top political offices not just in the country, but in the world. The speaker is second in line for the presidency, only behind the vice president. The speaker negotiates directly with the president and the Senate, welcomes foreign heads of state — and can even invite the pope to address Congress.
So it’s a heady thing for a four-term congressman from Utah to seriously seek the speakership, whatever his chances. However, if leadership races at the federal level are anything like Utah legislative leadership contests, they are notoriously hard to predict. Nothing is more cutthroat, and sometimes deceitful, than leadership elections. People lie. Even the best vote counters get things wrong. All sorts of behind-the-scenes dynamics occur.
So anything is possible. Chaffetz could win. An interim speaker could be appointed. Speaker John Boehnercould continue temporarily. House Republicans could rally behind Ryan (perhaps the best outcome). A deal with the Democrats could be brokered (although that’s not likely).
Can Chaffetz or Ryan unite a highly fractured House?
Pignanelli: Depending on one's ideology it's easy to embrace or dismiss Ryan’s and Chaffetz’s political activities. But it is impossible for anyone to deny the abilities of these popular politicians. Ryan is respected for a deep intelligence, mastery of budgetary policy combined with a folksy friendly approach. Chaffetz is especially talented with public messaging and building coalitions inside the caucus and with Democrats. (Several times I witnessed liberal members of Congress publicly praise his bipartisan demeanor).
Webb: The Republicans are going to look very foolish if the chaos continues very long. If they can’t even elect a speaker, how can they govern the country?
Whatever happens in the speaker’s race, can the House govern effectively, or is more dysfunction ahead?
Pignanelli: Many observers in Washington, D.C., believe the current political environment is so toxic that no lawmaker with deep experience wants to be speaker (explaining Ryan’s reluctance). Republicans are mad their legislation has stalled. Powerful left-wing special-interest groups pressure Democrats against compromise with moderate Republicans. Ryan or Chaffetz face a daunting challenge and should demand rational flexibility from their caucus before accepting the gavel.
Webb: Congress very quickly faces some really tough debt ceiling and budget votes that could shut down the government. The leadership turmoil throws into question the House’s ability to deal with these issues. Further dysfunction will only damage the Republican brand and hurt the party’s chances of winning the presidency and retaining control of the Senate.
I know the far right hates to hear this, but it is downright stupid to think they can win on all these big issues. Besides budget issues, they and their base back home demand that Congress repeal Obamacare, shut down Planned Parenthood and toss out the Iran nuclear agreement. All this while House conservatives don’t even control the House, which is only one-half of one-third of the federal government.
Here’s a simple fact: They don’t have the votes! Let me repeat that for the hard of hearing. They don’t have the votes! They can’t win in the Senate and Congress can’t override a presidential veto. In our democratic republic you don’t get your way unless you have the votes. It’s a minor detail that the far right can’t seem to grasp.
So if you don’t have the votes, what’s the smart thing to do? It’s pretty simple. Govern smartly and run good campaigns to win more votes. Win the presidency and win a bigger margin in the Senate. Then you will have the votes.
You win the presidency and more of the Senate by being competent, mainstream, common-sense problem-solvers. You don’t alienate and offend voters by shutting down the government, tilting at unpopular ideological windmills, and by causing chaos and gridlock.
After you win the presidency and more of the Senate then, by golly jeepers, you can turn the country around. You can have your way (although if you go too far too fast you’ll be booted out at the next election).