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A House Without Rules Makes for C-Span Gone Wild

Most days, Congress isn’t a Renaissance painting. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Once, people came to Congress for entertainment. The visitors’ gallery on Capitol Hill was a hot ticket for those looking to watch human drama and political chaos. To be fair, entertainment options were more limited in the era before Netflix or Xbox or even C-Span. In recent decades, such trips have become the civic-education equivalent of eating broccoli — a staple of tour groups visiting Washington but not something people did for fun. Over the past two days, though, all that has changed. Congress is amusing again as the nation’s attention is focused on the floor of the House of Representatives. C-Span’s presumably sky-high ratings are the subject of much speculation on Twitter (and CNN). Who needs sports or sitcoms when you can watch Kevin McCarthy step on the same rake time and time again? Eight times so far and counting.

But the entertainment factor doesn’t come only from the ongoing debacle around the 2023 Speaker’s election as a rump group of Republicans refuses to back McCarthy on ballot after ballot. It’s that this ongoing search has transformed the chamber at a structural level into something far more lawless and freewheeling.

The United States House of Representatives is currently not governed by anybody or by any set of rules. No one has been sworn in because there is no Speaker, and therefore everyone on the floor is still a member-elect. There is technically still no Congress at all and therefore no rules for it to obey. In the interim, members can do what they want. They can commit minor acts of rebellion like wearing hats on the floor or even accusing their colleagues of drinking inside the legislative chamber, like Florida Republican representative Kat Cammack did when giving yet another nominating speech for McCarthy on Wednesday. Her claim that Democrats were enjoying popcorn and booze while watching the Republican infighting brought outraged howls that she had uttered unparliamentary language and that her “words be taken down” for violating congressional decorum. After all, it is against the rules for members to cast “personal aspersions” against one another on the floor. But nothing happened. If there is no Congress, how could there be congressional decorum?

The lack of rules has benefited the television-viewing audience, too. Without anything governing the House, C-Span controls the cameras, not the Speaker. This means it can film the floor freely with close-ups of members and live reaction shots as the drama plays out — all verboten under standard operating procedure. It’s C-Span gone wild.

Yet while Congress went wild as well, some members became far more sober. Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose political brand has long been that of a loud-mouthed conspiracy theorist and extremist, transformed herself into a cautious, responsible advocate for House leadership against the GOP’s bomb-throwing rebels. Greene bemoaned the fact that her colleagues fighting McCarthy’s nomination were making “the Republican Party look like an embarrassment” and hoped they would just accept the concessions the Californian had given them and “take a victory lap.”

Even the roll-call votes have turned into shows as the members entertain themselves. Democrat Jared Huffman of California has taken to announcing his vote for Hakeem Jeffries as Speaker by referencing the venerable Internet meme “Leeroy Jenkins”:

It comes from an online clip in which a team of online gamers works out an elaborate plan to defeat its foes in World of Warcraft, but one team member, not paying attention, simply charges headlong into the fray, shouting his name, Leeroy Jenkins, as a battle cry with a long emphasis on Leeroy. He and all his teammates are slaughtered. Huffman sparked bipartisan imitation. On the Republican side of the aisle, Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa gave a similar intonation when she pronounced Kevin McCarthy’s name during a vote.

On the floor, George Santos, whose life expectancy in American politics rivals that of Leeroy Jenkins online, spent his first day in Congress sitting alone. By day two, he tried to get out and about on the floor during the endless votes for Speaker, which stretched on for over an hour at a time. As conversations were happening, Santos could be seen standing on the fringes, watching and listening. At one point, he walked over to Matt Gaetz of Florida and spoke to him, leaning over the seated Gaetz and talking into his ear. Santos seemed far more engaged in the conversation than Gaetz did. Maybe Gaetz was thinking about his plan to cast a Speaker vote for “Donald John Trump” in the seventh ballot?

The endless floor votes sparked their own routines as members chimed in alphabetically, from Alma Adams of North Carolina to Ryan Zinke of Montana. Bob Aderholt of Alabama talked to Intelligencer about what he felt was his responsibility as the first Republican to vote: “I’m the first one to go, so I sort of set the tone for the rest of the conference.”

The roll-call votes lacked suspense — after all, on Wednesday all three votes produced the same result, but an evening vote on whether to adjourn produced high drama as Democrats, with the help of a handful of McCarthy’s strongest opponents, tried to keep Congress in session. The vote came down to the final seconds. Every time it seemed finished, yet another member ran onto the floor. Democrats raised a single finger and shouted “One more!” as Melanie Stansbury from New Mexico raced down the aisle, being pushed along by colleagues to make it in time. On the other side of the chamber, Republicans shouted as Ronny Jackson of Texas made his way over to cast a last-minute ballot. All the while, without a Speaker, the chamber was presided over by the Clerk of the House, a nonpartisan figure with no rooting interest in the result. The final vote was 216-214, and the House ended its session for the day. This general sense of old-fashioned political drama that rarely happens in modern politics was amplified by the heavy odor of cigar smoke on the third floor of the Capitol, though that had nothing to do with the recess vote. It was simply the result of Oklahoma representative Tom Cole moving into the suite reserved for the chair of the House Rules Committee and using it to enjoy a smoke or two or ten.

For members of Congress, one of the benefits of this protracted political showdown is that there’s suddenly a lot more interest in having them appear on television. A row of TV cameras is set up just outside the entrance to the House chamber, and for those seeking a respite during the endless votes, the walk to get on Jake Tapper’s show is shorter than the walk to go to the toilet. It has even become a place for politicking. On Wednesday night, as Ken Buck, a wavering Republican from Colorado, went on television to waver for a national audience, Pennsylvania’s Guy Reschenthaler, one of McCarthy’s top whips, stood lurking by. Looming over the scene was a statue of legendary humorist Will Rogers, one of his native Oklahoma’s contributions to Statuary Hall. Rogers famously said, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” He never lived to see these House Republicans.

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A House Without Rules Makes for C-Span Gone Wild