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Republicans can’t stop threatening their speaker? Take away their TV!

This should be the last motion to vacate (knock on wood)

Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Thomas Massie sound off on Speaker Mike Johnson in a May 1 news conference. They got the attention they wanted, Shapiro writes.
Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Thomas Massie sound off on Speaker Mike Johnson in a May 1 news conference. They got the attention they wanted, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Marjorie Taylor Greene is poised to make history this week if she goes forward with her bid to oust Mike Johnson as House speaker. 

After her lengthy Monday afternoon meeting with Johnson, it remains unclear what the next steps are for the Georgia firebrand. But whether or not the motion to vacate ever gets to the House floor, this pay-attention-to-me gambit will hopefully mark the end of an era.

The Democrats, who have proved masterful in managing tiny House majorities, did not countenance rules under which the inmates could be running the asylum. When Nancy Pelosi regained power in 2019, they set a high bar for a motion to vacate, reserving it for emergency situations.

But the Republicans have spent years turning the speakership into the most thankless job in America other than serving as Donald Trump’s lawyer or Kristi Noem’s ghostwriter.  

Both John Boehner and Paul Ryan — two mainstream Republican speakers constantly harassed by right-wing zealots in their caucus — soldiered on under the threat that a single member could demand their ouster. Boehner, in fact, resigned in 2015 after a motion to vacate had been filed, though it never came to the floor.

But it took the fall of Kevin McCarthy last year to teach the Republicans basic lessons on the dangers of running the House as if they were reenacting the French Revolution.

I don’t have the heart to recount the details of the three weeks of embarrassing uncertainty and chaos before the House Republicans finally chose Johnson. Had the Louisiana backbencher not prevailed as speaker, the GOP’s probable next step would have been to draw names out of a hat like they were choosing a Secret Santa.

The only thing that saved the House Republicans from turning into a national laughingstock last fall was the reality that few voters were paying attention. With the approval rating of Congress already only reachable by submarines, it was hard to convince the electorate that — believe it or not — things had gotten worse. 

Every once in a while, in politics, a surprising figure actually rises to the occasion. And that will be Johnson’s legacy, even if his tenure as speaker only lasts until the end of this Congress. 

What seems certain is that Greene’s lonely assault on Johnson’s speakership would be overwhelmingly tabled by a bipartisan vote in the House. The only lingering question is whether Greene backs down at the last minute. 

Watching the tote board on a vote to table in the House is not exciting TV, even by the standards of C-SPAN. But I hope a video of the proceedings will be immortalized at the Smithsonian for a future exhibit on the Era of Congressional Dysfunction. 

A majority simply cannot function in the House if a single member (or even a handful of legislators) can bring matters to a halt by calling up a privileged resolution to vacate the speakership.

In the old days on Capitol Hill, a distinction was made between workhorses, who kept the institution running, and show horses, who reveled in publicity. But these days, a better classification system would be built around the dwindling band of workhorses (many of whom are retiring at the end of this session) and TV show horses.  

We are in an era when incendiary legislators like Greene can rake in small contributions by fulminating on cable TV. That fundraising prowess combined with one-party districts offers them complete freedom from responsibility. 

The only saving grace is that most legislators (save for fraudsters like George Santos) have, at least, a minimal sense of embarrassment. Maybe humiliating defeat won’t deter Greene in the future, but it might. 

If the Republicans keep the House in November, the next speaker (whether it is Johnson or someone else) has to demand, as a condition of taking office, that the threshold for a motion to vacate be raised to a significant number. 

Yes, ambition is an addictive drug, but all future Republican candidates for speaker should be forced to ponder the legacy of Kevin McCarthy. Where is the glory in reaching the top rung on the ladder if part of the deal involves removing the screws that hold everything in place?

But what if a Republican majority, in thrall to the Freedom Caucus, keeps the cockamamie rule that a single member can bring down the throne? 

In an ideal world, all the Republicans have to do is to add a simple requirement when anyone files a petition to vacate. If the move is unsuccessful, the legislator who set things in motion has to pledge not to appear on cable TV for a full year. That way, no one in the future would reap publicity benefits from such legislative stunts. 

Realistically, the Johnson speakership has achieved something epic — it reminded Washington that there is still a bipartisan coalition that believes in governing. It is why the government is open and why, at long last, aid is flowing to Ukraine. 

Until recently, a motion to vacate was one of those obscure wrinkles of government known only to parliamentarians and political scientists. It had never been used to remove a speaker before last year. 

And the hope is that when Greene’s gambit fails spectacularly this week, legislators will put this rule back into mothballs until, at least, the 22nd century.

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