Picking A Speaker

As 2023 starts we are reminded of the popular definition of insanity wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We’ve seen that at work in Washington this week.

In many ways the American political system is broken, and constructive change is beyond the political will. Those in power thrive on division and chaos. The people’s voice is unheard or ignored.

Which means sometimes the simple things get complicated. Like election the speaker of the House of Representatives.

The Republicans have a majority in the House. If they band together they can choose the speaker with no help needed from the Democrats. But the Republicans are fractured – and the system isn’t helping them. Multiple votes have been held, no-one has emerged as a winner.

Each time it is the same thing. No faction is willing to budge and no-one gets a majority. So why don’t they change things?

As I write this the eleventh ballot is underway and Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy seems no closer to his goal of becoming Speaker than he was on the first ballot. But he does know who his supporters and opponents are, as it is a voice vote.

In Canada, our House of Commons elects it’s speaker by secret ballot. Every MP’s name is on the candidate list – unless they withdraw before the vote.

When the balloting takes place, if there is no-one with the requisite fifty per cent plus one vote, another ballot is held. The person with the fewest number of votes on the previous ballot removed from the next one.

There are usually only a few candidates, and it gets whittled down to two pretty quickly. Given a choice between two people, one would think even a place as dysfunctional as the US House could find a winner.

Without dragging things on for days. Without the candidates having to make promises, to sell their political souls, to be elected.

I know such a sane system would not be adopted in Washington. There are too many in American political life whose goal is not governance but disruption.

All too often that is what politics has become. And not just in the USA.

Partisanship and personal gain seem to transcend the desire to do good, to actually accomplish something that would benefit the country. Politics boils down to two basic policies: my way or a scorched earth retreat. If I can’t get my way, it doesn’t matter what happens. (If that reminds you of a former US president, you are not alone.)

In politics, getting elected is often the easy part. Governing is hard. You could make a case that many, maybe even most, successful politicians never make the transition to governance.

Leadership sometimes requires you to do hard things. Sometimes it requires you to do the right thing – even if it is unpopular. When was the last time you saw true leadership?

If the Republican Party, with a majority in the House, can’t get its act together in such a simple process as electing a Speaker, how do they expect the American people to take them seriously? Maybe they don’t care. Or maybe they think the people will believe whatever they tell them to believe.

Maybe by the time you read this there will be a new Speaker of the House of Representatives. In theory the stalemate can’t last forever, some people will change their vote and push McCarthy over the top. Or a compromise candidate will emerge. Maybe some Republicans will become disgusted with their colleagues and their votes will push Democrat Hakeem Jeffries, who has unanimous support from his caucus, into the job.

Until a Speaker is elected the House can do no business. That may suit some people’s political agendas – but it is bad for America.

Politics in the USA is broken. I wonder if there is any chance of fixing it. Watching the House choose its Speaker, it looks like the answer is no.


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