“Scribblings,” An Occasional Letter from a Former Legislator
by Tom Koch
You may believe, as I do, that things have gone off the rails in Montpelier, but have you been enjoying the clown show in Washington?
The Republicans have a majority in the United States House of Representatives, but they can’t govern! What was expected to be a Republican landslide in last year’s elections resulted in just a slim GOP majority—223 to 212—and there are enough thick-headed, far-right members of the majority that they can prevent any bill from passing unless all of their demands are met, or unless the majority of Republicans works with (perish the thought!) the Democrats!
The tail that wags the dog consists of relatively few Representatives, but they are sufficient in number to bring all progress to a halt. There’s Matt Gaetz of Florida, probably the leader of the group (or at least the one with the biggest mouth), whose only interest appears to be exercising power for power’s sake and getting publicity. There’s Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who must have escaped when someone accidentally left the door to the asylum open; she was recently evicted from a theater for vaping, disturbing other patrons, and groping with her male partner during a performance of the musical “Beetlejuice.” (She has apologized.) And there is Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who is an antisemite and a conspiracy theorist, who, before running for Congress, called for the execution of Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barak Obama. There are others in the group as well, thankfully not all as radical or objectionable as these three, and arguably, they represent very conservative districts and are guarding their reelection prospects by holding their uncompromising positions.
This small group has just this past week shot down proposal after proposal to fund the government for the coming fiscal year 2024, which began on October 1 and will run until September 30 next year. One proposal was voted down by a mere 5 votes. What is it that this group wants? The quick answer is “spending cuts,” but for the most part, they don’t specify where those cuts are to be made or how much should be cut. Some believe that total government spending should be cut back four years to pre-COVID levels. But in the end they merely say “no,” realizing full well that if no appropriations bill passed before midnight on September 30, large portions of the federal government would shut down.
On a few matters, their demands are clear:
–Marjorie Taylor Greene doesn’t approve of the way Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is doing his job, so she sponsored an amendment to cut his salary to $1.00. (The House actually went along with this and adopted her amendment, even though it has no chance of eventually being enacted into law.)
–The group as a whole wants to cut off aid to Ukraine, because “it’s too expensive.” Well, nobody ever said that freedom comes cheap. And if we terminate our aid to Ukraine, Vladimir Putin will get everything he wants in Ukraine and then will march on to Poland and Estonia! Then the fight will become ours for sure, because both Poland and Estonia are members of NATO, and we are bound by treaty to defend any other member state from attack from the outside—“an attack on one is an attack on all!” I submit that anyone who thinks we should abandon Ukraine has not studied the history of Nazi expansion. Costly as our aid to Ukraine is, this is no place to make cuts in our budget! Neville Chamberlain is not looked on favorably by history, due to his abandonment of Czechoslovakia, and no American president or Congress will fare any better who abandons Ukraine.
–Seemingly unrelated matters also get into the mix, like the far right’s desire to hold hearings that could lead to the impeachment of President Biden. In an effort to placate the far right, Speaker McCarthy recently authorized a committee to begin such hearings, and the expense of those hearings needs to be authorized as well.
–And from the sidelines, Donald Trump was urging the holdouts to shut the government down, with or without a specific reason, but just because he’s unhappy with the government as presently constituted.
The effects of a shutdown are well known. First, many thousands of federal workers would not get paid so long as the shutdown continued. This includes those who protect us, including members of the military, TSA inspectors at the airport, and immigration officers. Second, many services of the federal government would be placed on hold, and National Parks would be closed to all visitors. Third, America’s credit rating could be cut, meaning that interest payments on the national debt would increase and would compound the problem of funding the government! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Republicans have shut down the government before, arguing that it costs too much and asks too much of the American taxpayer. Well and good, but when people see the result of a shutdown, they get angry, and generally, they take their anger out on Republicans. So, Gaetz and company—what a great idea you have trying to shut the government down!
So last weekend, hours before the government would have shut down, and being unable to bring the recalcitrant Republicans on board, Speaker McCarthy cut a deal with the Democrats to keep the government open and working. The bill contained much needed assistance to communities across America that have been hit this year by natural disasters—we in Vermont know that story well! And notably, the bill did not contain any additional aid to Ukraine. The bill passed both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly on a bipartisan basis. Working with the Democrats to save the country from a disaster—oh no!
This was McCarthy’s cardinal sin.
As a result, Rep. Gaetz filed a motion “to vacate the chair,” in other words, to fire the speaker. Yesterday, that motion passed, 216 to 210. Eight Republicans, including Gaetz, voted in favor of the motion; interestingly, the above-named Reps. Boebert and Greene voted NO, thus supporting McCarthy.
Today, the House is in a state of confusion, perhaps more precisely described by some in the media as “chaos.” The House needs to elect a new speaker, but there is no leading candidate, and in any event, it’s fair to ask who would ever want the job under present circumstances? McCarthy said today that he will not run for it again. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana is universally liked, but he is dealing with some serious health issues. A number of other names have been floated, but none has emerged as a front runner.
Whoever has the misfortune to be nominated as the choice of the majority of the Republican caucus will end up engaged is a good bit of wheeling and dealing. The small group of far-right Republicans led by Gaetz will want concessions, most likely a pledge that the new Speaker will oppose any further aid to Ukraine. Whatever is demanded, a Speaker candidate would be well advised not to deal with this small group; Rep. McCarthy did that in January when he was trying to get elected, and that is one of the things that led to his downfall yesterday. An alternative would be to cut a deal with the Democrat caucus, but there will be demands made there as well in exchange for the necessary votes, and concessions to the Democrats could result in a further erosion of support among Republicans for the Republican candidate.
Meanwhile, the government may not have shut down, but it is at a virtual standstill, at least legislatively. Nothing can pass until the House has reorganized itself, and it’s anybody’s guess how long that will take. The chances are excellent, though, that the newly reorganized House will not be more efficient, more productive, or more respectable than the previous version.
How this will all end is probably beyond the ability of anyone to predict. This mainline Republican, though, thinks it is safe to make one prediction: This will not turn out well for the Republicans! Speaker McCarthy said a few days ago that there needs to be an adult in the room (referring to himself.) Now he’s gone, and the House, with Republicans theoretically in charge, looks more like a bunch of second-graders in a sandbox than a house of Congress. It begs the question: Why would anyone vote to put a Republican majority back in charge after the 2024 elections? I can make a case for electing a GOP majority, but I doubt that the majority of the American people will agree. And that, in my opinion, is most unfortunate.
Scribblings” originated as a report on legislative affairs while the writer was a member of the Vermont House of Representatives from Barre Town. Since then, it has been written less frequently and with less focus on the legislature and more of whatever happens to move the writer. If you are not on the distribution list and wish to be added, simply send your name, town of residence, and email address to TomKochVT@gmail.com. If you are currently on the distribution list and wish to be removed, make that request at the same address—no offense taken.