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Speaker mayhem: When the rules are rigged, it breeds chaos

When districts are so safe, America gets chaos like the speaker drama

Speaker Mike Johnson walks down the House steps with other Republicans after securing the gavel Wednesday.
Speaker Mike Johnson walks down the House steps with other Republicans after securing the gavel Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Just think what you would do if you got the chance to rig the rules in order to win the game every time. Wouldn’t you be tempted? Well, never let it be said that a politician with a seat in Congress let that opportunity roll by. When they have the power to pick their voters instead of letting voters pick them, few can resist.

However, that presents a problem.

What you eventually get is the chaos Americans watched before a slim majority of House Republicans in a closed-door vote chose Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana as their fourth nominee for speaker in three weeks before all GOP members, no matter how reluctantly, voted in favor of his ascension Wednesday on the House floor. Yet, the drama may be only beginning on the worst reality show ever. There is a government shutdown to avert next month and aid packages ready to award to allied countries at war.

For the House members who have been gumming up the works — the works being democracy — it doesn’t matter one bit. There will be no self-reflection or consequences because safely carved districts make most House members untouchable, and actually encourage bad behavior.

Will it get better? In one state, it’s looking like more of the same. With a Republican-majority state Supreme Court clearing the way for partisan gerrymandering, North Carolina is showing how to turn a state that’s pretty evenly divided politically ruby red in its representation.

The Republican supermajority in the state legislature has drawn new lines that promise to transform North Carolina’s U.S. House delegation from its even split, with seven Democrats and seven Republicans in maps drawn by a panel of trial judges, to 10-4 in Republicans’ favor. And that’s if Democrats manage to eke out a win in a swing-ish district. The maps just passed the both state chambers.

The public did not get a say, and Democrats in the state legislature didn’t either. No one saw the tainted sausage being made, and no questions were allowed. Laws passed by the legislature kept the proceedings secret, and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, elected statewide, is helpless as well. With a bevy of new laws in place, the composition of state election boards will shift, predicting future stalemates on election policy, and voter ID rules have already tightened. As I dolefully predicted in a past column, my home state of North Carolina might just be becoming Florida.

In a place where statewide elections are usually close, there will be little suspense if the new maps pass court challenges. And since a federal court in the past has bashed North Carolina’s maps as targeting Black voters with “almost surgical precision,” you can bet that Republicans will argue it was partisanship, not race, that held their redistricting pen — the better to escape the example of Alabama. That state’s racial gerrymanders proved to be too much for this conservative U.S. Supreme Court, and that’s saying a lot.

Multiply that dynamic across the country, in states with one-party rule, and you can see how we got into this D.C. gridlock, where small pockets of extremists often wield veto power. With primaries determining general election results, it makes political sense to run toward the fringes, with incendiary rhetoric rewarded and no regard for any constituent with the bad luck to disagree.

When the base sends you to Washington to say “no,” there’s little chance to get to “yes.” Or even “maybe.”

Presiding over the House chaos, barely in the shadows, is the GOP’s big boss, Donald Trump. Polls show the majority of Republican voters believe President Joe Biden’s win was not legitimate, even as Trump’s former lawyers parade into court to plead guilty to crimes related to attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

Trump took a break from court appearances to torpedo the speaker chances of someone as conservative as Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who humiliated himself trying to crawl back into the former president’s good graces this week. Not good enough to absolve a congressman who voted to uphold Biden’s 2020 Electoral College victory, a truth not allowed to be whispered in MAGA-land.

It’s one reason we now have Speaker of the House Johnson, dripping with MAGA cred. Instead of elevating him to second in line to the presidency, wouldn’t it have been better to first make sure he actually believes in the principles of the country?

Johnson has not been just a go-along-to-get-along Republican; he’s an architect of the legal scheming that would have kept Trump in office after he lost the 2020 election. After Election Day 2020, Johnson stated on social media, “I have just called President Trump to say this: ‘Stay strong and keep fighting, sir! The nation is depending upon your resolve. We must exhaust every available legal remedy to restore Americans’ trust in the fairness of our election system.’”

Makes you worry about what could go awry in a close 2024 election.

At least he’s civil.

I would say Americans hope Johnson rises to the occasion. But while some are appalled that he sprinkled a legal veneer over the attempt to subvert the voices of the American people — millions of them, voters in his district and districts just as carefully curated — approve and would boot him out if he crossed Trump.

When an ABC reporter tried to ask him about those efforts, Republicans surrounding him laughed and booed, and Rep. Virginia Foxx, from the vantage of her safe red North Carolina district, told the reporter to “shut up.” Don’t be surprised if that clip shows up in a fundraising appeal.

Now, Democrats aren’t angels when it comes to trying to grab every possible advantage, although I don’t recall any of that party’s losing candidates encouraging followers to trash democracy in a power play.

Right now, New York state Democrats would like to claw back some of the seats Republicans won in 2022 with a little help from redistricting.

Rep. Jeff Jackson, a North Carolina Democrat with no chance at reelection since his district was “adjusted,” admits that, yes, his party played the same anti-democratic game. But there is a difference, as Jackson noted in a column in The Charlotte Observer: the sophisticated software and technology that has turned what was considered an art into a precise science, with mapmakers able — and we know they are willing — to pack and crack cities, neighborhoods and blocks into a predictable outcome.

In 2023, the tools to lock in partisan blocs are nearly foolproof. Let’s hope a few fools don’t doom us all.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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