The United States is embarrassed by a prolonged House speakership election that has paralyzed the new Congress with scars left by the Capitol riot stinging even more on the second anniversary.
“It’s embarrassing,” US President Joe Biden said earlier this week of the House’s repeated failure to elect a new speaker while stressing that the country, which has barely recovered from the mayhem on Capitol Hill exactly two years ago, has had “a lot of trouble with the attacks on our institutions.”
Such chaos in US politics has exposed a series of entrenched defects of the US democratic system, making it difficult to break the country’s political deadlock for a while, said Chen Wenxin, executive director of the Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
Republicans flipped the US House of Representatives in the 2022 midterm elections — the most expensive of those in history — while Democrats held onto their majority in the Senate. The divided 118th Congress convened for the first time on Tuesday, but the lower chamber ran into a stalemate unseen in a century.
US Congressman Kevin McCarthy from California — who served as House Republican leader over the past four years — failed to be elected the new speaker in three days of voting due to intra-party division.
McCarthy has the support of most House Republicans and former US President Donald Trump, but a handful of hardliners have opposed his bid to lead the conference by arguing that he is insufficiently conservative while refusing to decentralize the speaker’s power.
It was the first time a House speaker — who maintains order, manages its proceedings, and governs the administration of its business on the lower chamber’s floor — hadn’t been elected on the first ballot in 100 years.
Jemele Hill, a contributing writer for The Atlantic, commented that what has been witnessed “in American politics is just another brutal indictment of this dysfunctional political system.”
“US politicians are vying for power,” said Chen, adding that there is less and less room for different political forces in the country to reconcile, as political polarization has been festering. That makes Washington elites desperate to seize the opportunity of midterm elections to gain the upper hand, according to the expert.
The 435-seat House, “unlike the Senate, is not a continuing body,” Harvard legal scholar Laurence Tribe explained. “It must reassemble itself without full constitutional authority every two years.”
Tribe compared the proceeding to “someone rebuilding a ship on the open seas,” saying that “when the voyage is this rough, that’s a sign of dysfunction.”
Without a speaker, incoming House members cannot be sworn in and committees cannot be formed with the rest of business stalled and Congress not fully functional as the country is faced with several challenges, including stubborn inflation.
US Congressman-elect Kevin Mullin, a California Democrat, brought his children to the Capitol on Tuesday for his swear-in ceremony, but the young kids fell asleep in the seats on the House floor as voting went on and on that day.
“It’s not good for the Republican Party. It’s not good for the Congress,” Mullin told The San Francisco Chronicle. “And it’s not good for the American people when you have this kind of disarray on day one of the 118th Congress.”
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, also appeared to be frustrated, calling out that the “dysfunction in Washington is more evidence that the divide in our party isn’t about policy or ideology.”
The historic deadlock in the House coincided with the two-year mark of the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, when a large group of Trump supporters violently stormed the Capitol — located at the eastern end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — and disrupted a joint session of Congress to affirm the results of the 2020 presidential election in which Biden won.
Some of the rioters chanted “Hang Mike Pence” while making their way into the Capitol. The then US vice president, who was presiding over the procedure to formally verify Biden’s victory, was rushed out of the building by Secret Service agents to a secure location. Panicked lawmakers took shelter and crouched behind chairs in the House gallery.
Approximately 140 police officers were assaulted in the worst attack on the US Capitol in more than 200 years to which at least five deaths have been linked. Over 900 individuals have been arrested in nearly all 50 states for crimes related to the breach of the landmark complex.
Roger Cohen, Paris bureau chief of The New York Times, wrote in a story after the Capitol riot that it is “a shattering blow to America’s troubled Democratic image.”
Chen said the core design of the US system of checks and balances appears of no avail. In the system, the separation of power in the government is ensured through three independent branches — the executive branch, the judicial branch, and the legislative branch.
However, the expert pointed out the recent political chaos showed that the judicial branch, which should have maintained independence, has played a large part in partisan fights, as both Democrats and Republicans have struggled to arrange their staff into the federal and state judicial systems through elections.
Trump, who refused to concede to Biden and to push the unsubstantiated claim that their 2020 face-off was rigged, was impeached by the Democratic-led House for incitement of insurrection a historic second time before he left office on Jan. 20, 2021. The Senate, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans at that time, acquitted him later.
A House special committee led by Democrats launched an 18-month investigation into the Jan. 6 attack and issued a “final report” last month, alleging and detailing a “multistep effort” devised and driven by Trump to overturn the 2020 presidential election and block the transfer of power.
The panel, poised to be dissolved by House Republicans, accused Trump of inciting an insurrection, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to make a false statement, and obstruction of an official proceeding, and made criminal referrals to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The criminal referrals are not legally binding, and it is up to the DOJ to decide whether to pursue charges. Federal prosecutors are running a separate probe into the Capitol riot.
Trump, who launched a third bid for the White House after the 2022 midterms, has strongly slammed the House investigators and their report, stating that they “did not produce a single shred of evidence that I in any way intended or wanted violence at our Capitol” and that the events of Jan. 6 “were not an insurrection” but “a protest that got tragically out of control.”
The Wall Street Journal described in an editorial that the Capitol riot was “a national disgrace” but “almost more dispiriting is the way America’s two warring political tribes have responded.”
US Senator Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona announced last month that she was leaving the Democrat Party and had registered as an independent, declaring “independence from the broken partisan system in Washington.”
“There’s a disconnect between what everyday Americans want and deserve from our politics, and what political parties are offering,” Sinema wrote in an op-ed. “When politicians are more focused on denying the opposition party a victory than they are on improving Americans’ lives, the people who lose are everyday Americans.”
“Everyday Americans are increasingly left behind by national parties’ rigid partisanship, which has hardened in recent years,” she continued. “Bipartisan compromise is seen as a rarely acceptable last resort, rather than the best way to achieve lasting progress. Payback against the opposition party has replaced thoughtful legislating.”
The divided Congress with House Republicans aiming at checking the White House, however, is unlikely to bring any relief to the strong partisanship and deep political polarization that has increasingly choked Washington and the country at large.
Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group listed “Divided States of America” as one of the top risks for 2023 in a recent report, saying the United States “remains one of the most politically polarized and dysfunctional of the world’s advanced industrial democracies.”
“The growing partisan polarization of the American electorate is continuing to erode the legitimacy of core federal institutions: the three branches of government and the peaceful transfer of power through free and fair elections,” the report cautioned.
The United States will continue to go further along the path of political polarization, Chen said, adding that this year, both parties will make things difficult for each other on many issues and constantly point fingers at each other, as their political stance will gradually serve the general election in 2024.
McCarthy has previously vowed that House Republicans will seek to secure the southern US border, cut back on government spending, and launch rigorous investigations into the Biden administration. Besides, he didn’t rule out impeachment, which pro-Trump Republicans have been talking about.
The Capitol riot also remains a source of partisan discord as House Republicans are preparing to review the Jan. 6 select committee’s findings and allegations.
The DOJ has yet to announce whether to press criminal charges against Trump, a high-stakes move that could have a consequential impact as the 2024 presidential election is less than two years away. No US president has ever been charged with a crime after leaving office.
Biden acknowledged the polarization of US politics as part of his Christmas remarks at the end of last year, saying that “our politics have gotten so angry, so mean, so partisan” while urging efforts to “drain the poison that has infected our politics and set us against one another.”
“Too often we see each other as enemies, not as neighbours; as Democrats or Republicans, not as fellow Americans,” he lamented. “We’ve become too divided.”
As to the Republican quest to counter his agenda, Biden said in November last year, “I think the American public wants us to move on and get things done for them.”
“They don’t want every day going forward to be a constant political battle,” he added, warning the United States against being “trapped in an endless political warfare.”
According to a Gallup survey conducted between Nov. 9-Dec. 2 last year, Biden’s approval rating stands at 40%, with 55% disapproving of the way he is handling his job. Meanwhile, Americans’ approval of Congress remains largely negative, with 73% of adults expressing disapproval.