Republicans Are Playing House

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Written By Pinang Driod

Once upon a time—say, as recently as January 2021—an impeachment inquiry against a president of the United States was blockbuster news. But House Republicans’ party-line vote yesterday to open an impeachment inquiry against Joe Biden is hardly making a ripple.

Several possible reasons explain this. Most people who are paying attention understand that this is an impeachment process about nothing—a conclusion of corruption in search of evidence to back it up. Another is that even if the House does impeach Biden without finding shocking new evidence, the Senate will smother it: Democrats will back the president, and Republicans show no appetite anyway. A third, and related, one is that Biden faces a number of serious political difficulties, and they’re all more perilous for him than this.

All of these add up to an unflattering picture of the lower chamber of Congress right now: Republicans are just playing House. The impeachment inquiry is a prominent example, but others include the spectacle of Kevin McCarthy’s removal; the process to replace him, which even Republicans described in terms unfit for a family magazine; and a failed gambit on reauthorizing intelligence laws this week. This isn’t governance. It’s ludic, and ludicrous.

Since taking over the House, the GOP has launched a series of investigations into the Biden family. Republicans have produced a great deal of evidence that Hunter Biden, the president’s son, has traded on his family name and is involved in all sorts of sleaze. They have not produced any evidence of wrongdoing by his father. Instead, a pattern has emerged in which House Oversight Chair James Comer announces some bold new claim, only for reporters to immediately point out why it doesn’t hold up.

Comer and GOP leaders want to have it both ways: On the one hand, they want to present these as shocking revelations of wrongdoing. On the other hand, they claim that the White House is withholding the evidence of wrongdoing they need to produce revelations, and that formalizing the impeachment inquiry will allow them to do that. Back in September, then–House Speaker McCarthy launched an impeachment inquiry to try to placate right-wing members of the caucus. At the time, moderates were wary. So far, the inquiry has produced nothing other than an embarrassing public hearing in which Republicans’ own witnesses said there was no public evidence that justified an impeachment.

Undaunted, new Speaker Mike Johnson held a vote of the full House to formalize the inquiry, which will afford the inquiry more powers. Moderate members of the caucus have gotten on board, clinging to the claim that the whole thing is just asking questions, and won’t necessarily lead to an attempt at a real impeachment. “I can defend an inquiry right now,” Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska, who opposes impeachment, said. “Let’s see what they find out.” Texas’s Troy Nehls, to his credit, was more honest about the goal: “All I can say is Donald J. Trump 2024, baby.” The House can open an impeachment inquiry whenever it wants, for any reason, and the investigators could find clear evidence of wrongdoing later, but in the past an inquiry has followed from solid, existing evidence. The resolution passed yesterday doesn’t accuse Biden of any high crimes or misdemeanors. This is just playing around.

Despite the flimsiness, the impeachment inquiry seems to be just about the only issue about which Republicans can marshal a majority. McCarthy was unceremoniously tossed by a small but powerful portion of the caucus who were mostly mad that he couldn’t manifest their desires despite Democrats controlling the Senate and White House. Jim Jordan, Steve Scalise, and Tom Emmer couldn’t win enough votes to become speaker. Johnson triumphed, and then promptly agreed to more or less the same fiscal deal that had gotten McCarthy booted, and had to rely on Democratic votes to do so. The whole thing looked like a game—specifically, Calvinball.

Despite his hard-right cred, Johnson is starting to wear out the flealike patience of hard-liners. Many conservative members voted today against a compromise defense bill. On Monday, a conservative revolt forced him to give up a plan to put two competing bills governing the reauthorization of a law that allows surveillance of foreign nationals abroad. That just punts the issue to some time next year. But with McCarthy retiring this month, and George Santos recently expelled, the Republican caucus is only shrinking, and it already doesn’t function as a majority, so cobbling together a position that will attract a GOP majority could be even harder then. Congress has also failed to strike a deal on aid to Ukraine and Israel in exchange for better border security, in part because Republicans won’t say what they want, as my colleague David Frum reported this week.

And that’s the problem with playing House. When Republicans were simply fighting one another and cutting their own leaders off at the knees, it was an embarrassment to the party but also mildly entertaining. But now the chaos has started to affect the rest of the nation. Dithering on how to reform a major intelligence law and holding up aid to American allies poses a risk, in the view of the White House and many members of both parties, to national security. The impeachment probe focuses on the president and could influence the election. None of this is just fun and games.

Nevertheless, Republicans are going through the motions of running the House without actually doing much at all. When Johnson was elected speaker, critics feared that his lack of experience in House leadership would make it hard for him to manage the majority. That was a little unfair—McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and John Boehner, his predecessors as speaker, all had extensive experience and still couldn’t manage the current GOP either. But maybe it also doesn’t matter, as long as all that’s going on is a pantomime of governance.

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