As the sun set over Washington Tuesday, Congress was without a Speaker of the House of Representatives, the nation’s third highest authority and second in the order of succession to the White House behind the vice-president. It required only eight extremist dissidents from the Republican Party, in addition to the House Democrats, to oust Kevin McCarthy and throw America’s institutions into turmoil. As there is no precedent for such an occurrence in two and a half centuries of American democracy, the next steps to be taken are the subject of debate among constitutionalists. McCarthy’s chair has been occupied by Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina on an interim basis but all congressional functions are severely restricted until a permanent speaker is in place. The House will now take a week’s recess while Republicans and Democrats try to agree on how to revive activity after a vote that will go down in the history books.
The potential ripple effect of gridlock on Capitol Hill extends well beyond the Republican Party, Washington, and even the United States. Not only is all legislative and budgetary activity suspended: in mid-November, the provisional bipartisan agreement reached by McCarthy and the Democrats to temporarily fund the federal government will expire. If Congress does not approve an extension, the government will be forced to close all non-essential agencies due to lack of funds, forcing government workers to work without pay and putting many of their functions on hold. For the same reason, military aid to Ukraine, which is financed by the Defense Department, is also in jeopardy.
McCarthy, the first speaker in history to be removed after just nine months in office, is only the latest victim of the extremism that the Republican Party has been cultivating since the emergence of the Tea Party faction in 2010, which was later transmuted into Donald Trump’s sect. Populism has devoured three recent other leaders of the conservative formation: Eric Cantor (defeated in a primary), John Boehner (resigned before being censured by extremists) and Paul Ryan (who left politics after proving unable to unite the Republicans following the emergence of Trump). Now, despite the electoral decline of Trumpism, Republican weakness has given party hardliners the potential to wield more influence than ever before in Washington. Corrosion has reached the heart of power with no plan other than chaos and the personal promotion of the minority group that has taken democracy hostage.
The Democrats had no reason to vote to save McCarthy, an ambitious character who caved to all Trumpist demands to retain his seat, and who played a significant role in the rehabilitation of the former president’s image after the assault on the Capitol. This pact with the devil has cost him his career, but it is important to separate the person from the office. It is time for accountability. For Democrats to idly contemplate Republican self-destruction is understandable politically, but not when institutions are placed at risk. If there is an alternative to McCarthy among Republicans who could command the respect of their rivals, Democratic voters would not understand if their party boycotted this person. Once again, the Trumpist infection has dragged America to the edge of the precipice. The only way to pull back from the abyss is to put institutions ahead of politics.
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