As the 118th congress began, Republican Kevin McCarthy was elected House speaker in an after-midnight 15th ballot, navigating a week of tension and roadblocks within his own ranks. The news coverage of the drawn-out and, in some moments, the angry process highlighted the concessions forced upon McCarthy to gain support from his own party to win the Speakership. It raised questions about whether minority factions have too much power- and put a spotlight on the way the U.S. system works. Not only was it the subject of ridicule in some corners of the world but even some Americans were questioning whether our system works at all.
While we agree it was a difficult process, we disagree with the view expressed by so many who said that it demonstrated our government is dysfunctional. We believe it was a clear indicator that our government works as intended. The Founding Fathers designed the American government to reflect the broad interests and perspectives of US citizens. Our current government is narrowly divided, demonstrating what we believe is a more closely aligned public opinion than is commonly believed. At the same time, each party has vocal ideological factions that often dominate public discourse and the attention of the press. The narrowness of the majority means that some concessions needed to be made to bring the faction along with the majority.
Negotiation and compromise have always been a hallmark of our government. The importance of this process leads to opportunities to build a policy that takes into consideration the interests of differing ideologies, of a broader view. At the same time, it lessens the probability of extreme views becoming law.
But there is another, in our view, positive outcome from the Speaker election that we believe is now more likely – more bipartisanship. In a narrowly divided Congress where both parties have strong ideological and vocal factions, getting something done will require the pragmatists in both parties to work together rather than depend on their parties to deliver the votes. Some of the concessions Speaker McCarthy made – such as enabling floor debate on some bill amendments – could make it easier for representatives to find bipartisan support for bills they introduce.
There are those who make headlines in Congress for their caustic rhetoric or extreme views, and there are those who accomplish change by working together with colleagues across the aisle to pass legislation.
Much has changed in recent years that bears this out. Since the question of abortion has been remanded to the states, several very red states have had referenda that may have put limits on abortion rights – but did not eliminate them. By contrast, election laws passed in the wake of the 2020 presidential election and characterized as “Jim Crow 2.0” led to higher voter turnout in the 2022 election than in prior mid-term elections and the election of a Democratic senator in otherwise strongly red Georgia. That gave a majority to the Democrats in the Senate while Republicans took control of the house.
Does this show that we have a dysfunctional government? No. It shows our system works. You have to make concessions, and you need to cut deals with those you disagree with, and you can do that without compromising your fundamental principles. In fact, when bipartisanship happens you can get a better policy because broader interests make their way into the bill and the legislation is more likely to be long-lasting. That’s what the Founding Fathers wanted. As long as we have that kind of dynamic going, you’re not going to have too much power in the hands of too few. The way sausage is made can look ugly, but it follows a recipe, and….in the end, the sausage tastes pretty good.