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House Is Paralyzed Without a Speaker—Creating National Security Risks and a Shadow Shutdown

Imagine if this impasse were occurring in a presidential inaugural year.
January 4, 2023
House Is Paralyzed Without a Speaker—Creating National Security Risks and a Shadow Shutdown
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 04: Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz (R-FL) talks to fellow members-elect during the second day of elections for Speaker of the House at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 04, 2023 in Washington, DC. The House of Representatives is meeting to vote for the next Speaker after House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) failed to earn more than 218 votes on three separate Tuesday ballots, the first time in 100 years that the Speaker was not elected on the first ballot. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As Kevin McCarthy repeatedly fails to secure enough votes to become speaker and the House of Representatives sits in limbo, Democrats say they are increasingly concerned about the risks to national security involved in a prolonged period without any active members or ability to conduct legislative business.

Currently, every elected member of the House has yet to be sworn in to office, leaving committee structures up in the air and creating a backlog of onboarding for freshmen and their staffs.

Lawmakers’ families who came to Washington for the pomp and circumstance of the first day, including the swearing-in of members, have grown exhausted waiting. House staffers have lamented they have no work to start until there’s a successful vote. Meanwhile, freshmen members have been prevented from accessing official House emails; some prematurely sent out press releases announcing their swearing-in, even though it has yet to happen.

A more serious matter is the committee work. Although most committees under a GOP majority are expected to shift the focus of their work, there is some committee work that should have continued over from the previous Congress and already been underway. Right now, however, members of Congress are unable even to view classified documents. This has some Democrats uneasy about the next few days—and if the speakership impasse drags out, potentially much longer.

“We can’t even do basic things,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Cal.) told The Bulwark. “We can’t conduct any oversight. You can’t have an entire branch of government simply not function. And we don’t have a House right now because no one’s even sworn in.”

“And the chaos on the Republican side is having real consequences for the country and it’s going to get very serious very fast,” he added. “Imagine if there’s some unexpected crisis either domestically or somewhere in the world and you needed Congress to act. We couldn’t right now because we don’t have a speaker.”

Lieu also painted a picture of a future speakership fight with even more disturbing consequences—if a dispute like this were to occur during a year in which Congress is charged with certifying a presidential election.

“With January 6th coming up, we should be reminded not only of their horrendous attack on our Capitol, but why the former president picked that day. It was to stop the certification of the Electoral College results. And so thank goodness we don’t have to certify any Electoral College results this week because we wouldn’t be able to,” Lieu said. “The American people should be asking themselves, two years from now, would you actually want a Republican House majority again.”

Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, joined Lieu in suggesting that Republicans are neglecting their duties and putting the country in a dangerous position.

“If God forbid there was a crisis we couldn’t respond to it in any way,” Nadler said. “Either [Republicans] do and they don’t care or they don’t understand it.”

The delays have already held up official national security business. Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, the Republican chosen to lead the new Select Committee on China, said Wednesday that he was unable to conduct a scheduled meeting with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Capitol’s secure briefing room.

However, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) suggested the absence of a speaker and functioning House is a minor setback and that Republicans are capable of making up lost ground.

“So far it’s only lasted a day, so we’ll see—that’s a blip in the long term,” Banks said. “We’ll roll our sleeves up and move forward as quickly as we can to make up lost time, so ask me in a week.”

“Right now this is how the process works,” he added. “Hopefully we’ll resolve it today.”

So far, though, Republicans have failed to move a single vote in the speakership selection process, leaving not just McCarthy’s fate up in the air, but Congress’s essential responsibilities. The process is expected this evening at 8 p.m. EST with a seventh ballot—and perhaps more. [Update, 9 p.m. EST: No seventh ballot tonight; the House as adjourned until Thursday at noon, when voting for the speakership is expected to resume.]

Joe Perticone

Joe Perticone is national political reporter at The Bulwark. Follow him on Twitter: @JoePerticone. He can be reached at: [email protected].