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Will voters punish total incompetence? House Republicans are about to find out

Evidence is scant that voters would punish blundering ineptitude

Speaker Mike Johnson and House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik attend a news conference on Jan. 17.
Speaker Mike Johnson and House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik attend a news conference on Jan. 17. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The cheering is still echoing in my ears and bits of brightly colored confetti are stubbornly clinging to my head. Not since the raucous celebration in Times Square of the end of World War II has there been euphoria to rival what the House Republicans triggered last week.

At the very last minute, in Perils of Pauline fashion, Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., aided by an outpouring of Democratic votes, managed to delay a partial government shutdown until March.

Wow! Johnson’s hat trick rivals the achievements of such legislative masters as Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay in the 1830s and House Speaker Sam Rayburn in the 1950s. This is the stuff of legend: For all 29 days of February, no one in America need worry that the government will run out of money.

Of course, there are naysayers. Marjorie Taylor Greene is openly talking about an effort to oust Johnson. The Georgia GOP firebrand told Politico, “I don’t think he’s safe right now. The only reason he’s speaker is because our conference is so desperate.”

New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who chairs the House Republican Conference and is openly auditioning to be Donald Trump’s running mate, voted against the temporary funding extension. She was joined in her apostasy by more than 100 other House Republicans.

It is easy to get a glimmer of the future. Maybe Johnson will hang on as speaker until the November elections. Or maybe the nation will be treated to another motion to vacate and another enervating series of roll call votes to pick a new sucker — sorry, I meant to type “speaker.”

Poet T.S. Eliot declared, “April is the cruelest month.” That may especially be the case in Washington if Johnson and Co. cannot figure out a way to navigate through the coming March government funding crises.

Meanwhile, House Republicans in their ideological zeal seem determined to reject any compromise immigration bill being negotiated in the Senate. Johnson wants to delay any immigration legislation until Donald Trump is again president.

So what if Johnson is poised to reject the first serious effort in years to control the chaos on our southern border? So what if Johnson is willing to let aid to Ukraine go down the tubes as part of a package deal on immigration?

The House Republicans are living in a fairy tale world. Alas, the fairy tale is taken from the Grimm Brothers and the Republicans are emulating Rumpelstiltskin, stomping their feet through the ground when they don’t get their way.

Reality check: There is no coherent strategy for House Republicans to prevail, with their fragile three-vote majority, when the Democrats control the Senate and the White House. That may explain why they are banking on divine intervention in the form of a second Trump presidency.

Of course, the House Republicans have a glorious opportunity to impeach someone, for some ill-defined constitutional offense, if imperiled GOP incumbents in swing districts somehow go along. Will it be Joe Biden or a Cabinet member like Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas or Attorney General Merrick B. Garland?

Personally, I’m betting on Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the lead pipe.

All this ineffectual maneuvering by the House Republicans gives rise to a political question: Does a congressional party ever pay a price at the ballot box for sheer incompetence?

History is littered with the sad tales of presidents who have stumbled. Think of Herbert Hoover with the Great Depression, Jimmy Carter with the Iranian hostage crisis and that Trump fellow with COVID-19.

Even second-term presidents can pay a serious price for their reign of error: Nancy Pelosi originally became House speaker after the 2006 elections because of George W. Bush’s mishandling of the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina.

We know that individual members of Congress are vulnerable for their personal misdeeds.

GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert, who has a strange idea of proper decorum in a theater, had to move to a safer Colorado House district after she became a laughingstock for her own personal performance while attending “Beetlejuice” in Denver.

It is a virtually certain bet that New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez will not be returning to the Senate next year after federal agents, according to a criminal indictment, found nearly $500,000 in cash and 13 gold bars in a raid on his home.

And, in these polarized times, dozens of congressional incumbents, particularly Republicans, live in mortal terror of a primary challenge based on a handful of votes plucked out of context by a militant challenger.

That said, it is hard to find an example of a political party punished at the polls for its inability to manage a congressional majority.

Yes, in his 1948 presidential upset, Harry Truman successfully ran against “the Republican 80th do-nothing Congress.” But in contrast to 2024, then-Republican House Speaker Joe Martin was legislatively adept and merely disagreed with Truman’s political agenda.

Many factors could cost the Republicans control of the House this November. Final redistricting decisions in states like New York and North Carolina will play a major role. And, assuming Trump is at the top of the GOP ticket, the presidential election will dominate everything.

But there is scant evidence that blundering ineptitude by an entire party will be a voting issue. To understand how ill-suited the House Republicans are to actually running anything requires a knowledge of Capitol Hill that an overwhelming majority of voters have no interest in acquiring.

So as the House Republicans spend 2024 lurching from one self-inflicted disaster to another, enjoy the spectacle of a party that couldn’t govern straight. But don’t expect it to matter in November.

Walter Shapiro is a staff writer for The New Republic and a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is a veteran of USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post.

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