Rep. Matt Gaetz

The GOP armed its bazooka caucus. What could go wrong?

It was inevitable that giving Rep. Matt Gaetz the procedural bazooka he demanded would end in the political annihilation of newly former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

For Gaetz — a 2020 election denier, a defender of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the subject of an ethics investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct, illicit drug use and more — rules seem to matter most when they benefit him. The animating tenet of his political ideology — a strain of the broader conservative bent against taxation and spending — is that the federal government works against the public interest because it is corrupt. Chaos feeds his narrative.

McCarthy’s substantive sins were avoiding a national default and a federal shutdown, which interfered with Gaetz’s ability to demonstrate that the government is broken. So Gaetz, R-Fla., used his procedural weapon — the “motion to vacate” — to do the next best thing: He aligned with Democrats to throw the House into a state of anarchy. For one day, at least, Gaetz and his seven followers ruled the 433-member House.

“To do this on the floor is embarrassing and does not give the American public much confidence in Republicans being able to govern,” former Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., said in a text message. “This small group just voted WITH the Democrats while ousting the speaker because the Democrats voted WITH the speaker and the majority of Republicans to keep the government open.”

It “reminds me a lot about the Abbott and Costello routine ‘who’s on first?'” Westmoreland said.

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Comedy and comity aside, the Gaetz phenomenon is indicative of a much larger trend within the Republican Party and within the House: the use of emergency measures — the heaviest available political artillery — to thwart majority rule, disrupt democratic institutions and oust political opponents.

The most obvious example of the trend, of course, is the Gaetz-supported effort by then-President Donald Trump to stop his 2020 defeat from being certified. Most House Republicans — 139 of them — objected to the certification after the Capitol was stormed. So did eight Senate Republicans.

Impeachment, once a power as solemn as it was seldom-used, has become en vogue.

In the first 209 years of the republic, the House voted on whether to impeach a president — Andrew Johnson — once. In the last quarter of a century, the House has voted to impeach the president three times: Bill Clinton once and Trump twice. President Joe Biden currently faces an impeachment inquiry. None of that includes dead-end efforts by lawmakers to impeach President George W. Bush or less formal calls for the impeachment of President Barack Obama.

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House Republicans launched an impeachment investigation into Biden this year without seeking the approval of the full House — because there weren’t enough votes to support it. There are other ways Congress can rebuke a president, including through censure. Even witnesses called by the House GOP to testify have said there is not currently evidence that Biden committed high crimes or misdemeanors.

But the motion to vacate the speaker’s chair may have undergone the most peculiar perversion of intent in terms of a small minority taking control.

The power originates in President Thomas Jefferson’s manual, which was adopted as the base House rulebook in 1837. With little other guidance, it allowed for a majority of representatives to vote to remove the speaker. But aside from the time Speaker Joe Cannon initiated and defeated a motion to remove himself — to show he still had power in the wake of a 1910 rebellion — it lay dormant.

The rules around a vacancy in the speakership began to change after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist assault on the U.S. because lawmakers feared that another attack could leave the House inoperable in a time of crisis or even leave the position second in line to the presidency open. One new feature was the list of successors a speaker delivers to the clerk of the House — McCarthy named Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the new interim speaker — in the event of a vacancy.

Rather than seeing the vacancy rule as a necessary security measure, ultraconservative House Republicans began to view it as a tool for applying pressure to the speaker to bow to their demands. For a period of time, a motion to vacate the speakership required a majority of the House majority caucus. Then-Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who would go on to become one of Trump’s White House chiefs of staff and who is under indictment for his role in the effort to overturn the 2020 election, helped push then-Speaker John Boehner of Ohio from office in 2015 by threatening to vacate the chair.

In a major concession to the Gaetz faction, McCarthy, R-Calif., had agreed at the beginning of this Congress to force a vote to vacate whenever a single member called for one. As the vote Tuesday demonstrated, the vast majority of Republicans wanted to keep McCarthy in power. And while it technically required a majority of the House, it’s hard to imagine a time when the minority party would not gleefully stand with a rebel faction to oust the majority party’s speaker.

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There are, after all, limits to a minority party’s willingness to provide political aid to the majority.

Many Republicans would now like to put the weapon away. But as the impeachment and motion-to-vacate examples show, it’s hard to stop using a bazooka once it has been fired.

This trend is obvious to both Democrats and Republicans.

“Impeachment may have become the new censure,” Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., said. “And apparently MTV is the new way to re-litigate a speaker’s election,” he added, using the abbreviation for motion to vacate.

Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., traced the roots back almost 30 years, to the time when Republicans took control of the House for the first time in four decades.

“Since the moment Newt Gingrich ascended to the speakership three decades ago, we have seen one of the two major parties completely abandon any commitment to the norms,” Boyle said.

“After the 2010 Tea Party wave, that rejection of the norms accelerated. Then, from Trump on, the rejection has gone on steroids,” he said. “Government shutdowns, debt default crises, rash impeachments, once-in-a-century multi-round speaker’s votes and now [Tuesday], a historic first ever — all are part and parcel of this.”

Rep. Dan Goldman, of New York, who was the lead counsel in the Democratic-led impeachment of Trump over his withholding of funds for Ukraine, drew distinctions between the Trump impeachments and the GOP inquiry into Biden. The Trump cases were based on evidence of actions — such as Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy and his efforts to stop the certification of electors — while there is no evidence to date of similar actions by Biden, Goldman said.

“What we have now is an effort, fomented by Donald Trump, to get retribution against President Biden and to avenge his two impeachments,” Goldman said, noting that McCarthy launched the inquiry without a vote of the full House after saying he would not do so.

But McCarthy had little choice if he wanted to remain speaker. He had handed the power to remove the speaker to every small band of recalcitrants on every issue. It only took about nine months for Gaetz to figure out how to use the weapon.

Jonathan Allen

Jonathan Allen is a senior national politics reporter for NBC News, based in Washington.