C-Span’s 15-Round Thriller

Welcome to 2023!  Though I usually write about sports 99% of the time, this week’s most interesting game just occurred in Washington DC in the chambers of the US House of Representatives.

Regardless of your political affiliation (or independence), it was nice to see the 434 members of this body having to show up to work every day like the rest of us do.

You could tell that most of these newly-elected House members were not exactly thrilled about being forced to show-up at their office to work every day this week.   Especially when you consider that it took them over four full days just to determine a new leader.

Down the hall in your hard working 100-member US Senate, a newly elected (six years) member was asked by a television host this week about how his first week at work was going.

The new Senator (who has no previous political experience) laughed at the question.  He showed-up for work early in the week, was sworn in to become “official” and then attended his first Senate meeting.

The first order of business for your hard working US Senate was to adjourn for the next three weeks!  This fellow seemed genuinely surprised by this action (or inaction).  Remember, the gentleman is considered to be a rookie on the Senate team.  He will learn.  It takes time to develop skills and become a real Senator like the other veterans.

With the average US Senator now up to 70 years of age (five are over 80), the job apparently requires unique job skills which can only be acquired over a long period of political training and time.  This Senate rookie has much to learn!

Just a few weeks ago, the 2022 team of Washington Senators worked right up until Christmas weekend to pass a massive 7,000 page “Omnibus” spending package costing $1.7 trillion.  That works out to 14 reams of your favorite 500-page printer paper at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $243 million per page.

As our rookie Senator will soon learn, “Omnibus” in Congressional speak means “We even threw-in the kitchen sink, so please don’t read it!”    

No wonder the US Senate adjourned for three weeks after one day of work in 2023.  They are still recovering from last year’s big finish!

They had to truck this monster bill over to the US House of Representatives.  Yes, last year’s team of House of Representatives signed it just in the St. Nick of time, too.

With 2023 now upon us, this Tuesday was the time to seat all of the 434 new and returning members to the US House of Representatives.  They were just elected (or re-elected) in November to serve for two years in this federal government job.

The assembled US House team consists of members coming from geographic areas of approximately 750,000 US citizens each.

In the Houston, Texas area, there are now about six US House of Representative members for this region of four million (and growing) citizens.

To put that into perspective, Houston’s number of US House members now equals the sum of all House representatives from Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming (with one apiece).

On Tuesday, the 434 people who won elections to work in the US House of Representatives showed-up for their first day of work for the next two years.

There are important things to be done.  Like all new employees, these 434 people need to get their ID badges, security clearances, and, of course, get set-up on the government’s payroll system, too.

In order to kick-off the process, the US House of Representatives needed to establish a leader to be in charge of this oft-times unruly bunch.  The title of “Speaker of the House” is usually awarded to a person from the political party which received the majority of these 434 elected officials.

With 222 Republicans and 212 Democrats in the field, the new Speaker of the House must receive more than half of the voting delegates.  In this case, 218 votes was the magic number.

Now it’s time to insert an obligatory sports analogy.

The Republicans former leader in the US House of Representatives (think of him as the team’s Head Coach) has held a variety of leadership roles for more than a dozen years.  Initially given the job of Chief Deputy Whip (like a Position Coach in football) back in 2009, he worked up to Majority Whip (Assistant Head Coach) in 2011 and then won his team’s Leadership role (Head Coach) beginning in 2014.

The Republicans have enjoyed some success and failures during his time as the team’s leader.  Like most government jobs, it is difficult to be fired from your current position.

Much like “The Godfather” movie, each political party’s leader does not like to be questioned or challenged.

Doing so in public is often quite risky.  The previous House Speaker managed her team with an iron fist.  In fairness, both the Republican and the Democrat teams generally operate in a similar fashion.

You see, a few of these top US House of Representatives leaders (like those in the US Senate) can make you or break you.  If you are considered to be a team player by cooperating fully with the team’s Coach, you may earn a more powerful committee assignment and greater funding for your next re-election campaign.

However, if you fall out of line, you could be banished to the bench (meaning little or no committee assignments) by the team’s Head Coach.  Good luck on getting any significant re-election cash from your party’s leadership prior to your next election campaign.

The Republicans will hold a slim 10-seat majority in the US House of Representatives for the next two years.  The long-time Head Coach of the Republican team fully expected that he would receive the required 218 votes from his compliant associates and be awarded the powerful leadership position this week.

As former college football coach Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast, my friend!”

Beginning on Tuesday, a group of about 20 Republican representatives caused quite a bit of chaos.

These trouble makers believed that their current coach was not trustworthy, has been ineffective in the past, and has been unwilling to make substantive changes in how the House of Representatives operates.  This small group decided to oppose his nomination and put forth an alternate leader in the vote.  They hoped that the other team members would follow their lead.

In Tuesday’s first round of voting for Speaker of the House, the current Republican Head Coach fell 17 votes short of the 218 needed for election.  The Democrats’ choice for Head Coach received all 212 of their votes.  However, the Democrats were six votes short of the 218 needed to win.

It was time to play this game again!

In every subsequent round, about 20 Republicans repeated their demands for either a new leader or for significant reforms to be guaranteed to open-up the House of Representatives.  Neither side was willing to budge.  The same voting outcome happened again and again.

If you watched very much of this week’s fascinating soap opera, I learned that Congress no longer operates in the way most of us thought it did.  Remember that Schoolhouse Rock song called, “I’m just a Bill on Capitol Hill”?

Not so anymore.

Operating much like the so-called “cool kids” at your school, there is a House Rules Committee.  They are a very small but powerful and rather exclusive group.  They determine what comes up for a vote and how much (or little) will be debated on the floor by all members of the legislative body.

In recent years, the 434 House members increasingly were shunned from having an opportunity to openly discuss or comment on anything before a final vote was taken.  The 434 members were primarily only allowed to vote “Yes” or “No” to most legislation.

This week, those 20 Republican troublemakers kept nominating another Republican candidate in every round to become their team’s new head coach.  They wanted significant changes to be made in the way the House of Representatives operates.

It was critical for all team members of both parties (Republicans and Democrats) to stay put and vote in every single round from Tuesday afternoon until midnight on Friday night.

If any Republican was to leave the floor and miss the next vote, the Democrats might be able to steal the Speaker’s position for their team.  The person or persons missing the vote would be scorned by their teammates and likely fired by their constituents two years from now.

On the Democrat side, woe to any Democrat if that person should leave the floor and squander their team’s very slim chance to capture the leadership position for their team!  Their 212 members stayed and voted in every single round of this four-day game.

Each vote took about two hours as each of the 434 House members was required to be in the hall for a voice vote.  If they were not in the room at the time, they were given a second chance at the end of the roll-call voting to register their vote.

Round 2 came and went with the same results.  Ditto for Rounds 3 through 14.  After beginning on Tuesday, this voting game continued on Wednesday, Thursday and late into Friday night.

Before each vote, backroom deals were being negotiated with this problematic group of 20 Republicans.  They demanded that any changes be put into writing to satisfy their concerns.

Around midnight on Friday, a winner (the current Head Coach) was finally crowned by a narrow four-vote margin.  The final tally was 216-212.

But wait!  That’s only 428 votes of the 434 House members.

There were six of the 20 Republicans who opted to vote “Present”.  In that manner, they were not on the permanent House record as having voted for the current Head Coach for the Speaker’s position.

This multi-day drama and gamesmanship was quite unusual.

In most US House of Representatives sessions (every two years), the Speaker’s position is the first order of business.  The leader is usually elected on the first ballot on Day 1 of the session.

The last time the US House required more than 15 ballots was back in 1859.  That was just a few years prior to the start of the Civil War!

Obviously, the Republican Head Coach was quite embarrassed by this tedious four-day extra inning ball game.  Though he could have withdrawn from consideration at any time this week, he showed the resilience of Rocky Balboa by taking a lot of gut punches throughout this entire 15-round fight.

The Democrat team (all 212 members) voted in lockstep – every single round.  They smelled a rare opportunity to score an upset victory.  Should they have been able to cut a deal with six moderate Republicans to cross the aisle to come and vote with them, their team would have celebrated one of the greatest upsets in American political history.

When all was said and done by early Saturday morning, the House of Representatives has a new Speaker.  The 434 House members have been sworn-in.  Most importantly, they can now get busy with the most important job of all – getting set-up in the federal payroll system!

For us taxpayers who watched this multi-day drama on C-Span (thank you!), we had a chance to see and get to know many of these 434 House of Representative members.

It was fascinating to watch.

For the first time in decades, this group of people worked together every day in the same location for an entire week.   Do miracles ever cease?

Speaking of miracles, I learned that the US House of Representatives opens every session with a prayer and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

As the 15th vote finally brought a winner after the midnight hour late Friday night, the jubilant response from the House floor proved that many of their prayers were finally answered!