Observing the Congressional Republicans repeatedly stumble in and out of their caucus clown car, blowing loud kazoos and muttering angry threats, should be painful, embarrassing, and highly instructive to any American voter with the patience to watch. When their latest performance concluded late Tuesday night with a 257 to 187 vote passing the stopgap fiscal deal negotiated by the Senate and the White House, an unavoidable question lingered: What is wrong with those people?
The simple explanation is that the House of Representatives has increasingly been dominated over the past two decades by a coterie of tantrum-prone extremists, who lack the probity and steadiness required for democratic self-government. Their diminished capacity is reflected in the low quality of leadership they have chosen during this long twilight, from Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay to John Boehner and Eric Cantor, even as their politics have grown more and more extreme.
Under the stress of their incoherence, the Republican caucus is unable to escape one humiliating mess after another. The damage they routinely inflict on the country’s economy and future is reaching incalculable levels – and is almost certain to grow worse when they again hold the debt ceiling hostage next month.
By the end of the current episode – which is only an interlude rather than a true resolution – the top Republicans in the House had split, with Boehner casting a rare vote in favor, and House Budget Committee chair and former vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan (R-WI) voting yes, along with 84 fellow Republicans and almost all of the House Democrats, while House Majority Leader and would-be Speaker Eric Cantor (R-VA) voted no. On the floor, House Ways and Means chair Dave Camp (R-MI) tried to claim that this bill is “the largest tax cut in history,” although he might have difficulty explaining why more than 150 Republicans voted against it.
The Republicans’ incompetence in government is inextricably connected with their ideological extremism, as the latest events demonstrate. Hogtied by the craziness of the ultra-right Tea Party faction, the House GOP leadership cannot even cooperate with other Republicans in the Senate – who overwhelmingly voted for the “cliff” deal negotiated with Vice President Joe Biden – let alone conduct serious discussions with the White House.
Having refused to support the leadership’s “Plan B” scheme to raise taxes only on households making $1 million or more annually – despite confident claims by Boehner and Cantor that they had counted the necessary votes — the Republican caucus made both themselves and their leaders look ridiculous. It was a dreadful right-wing plan, but still much too liberal for too many of them. Tacitly acknowledging that he could no longer manage his restless wingnuts, Boehner insisted that the Senate and White House should come up with an emergency measure on their own.