On October 3, U.S. Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, was removed from office by members of his own party, sparking a historic period of chaos within the United States Congress. Such an event is completely unprecedented in American history; what has followed in the subsequent two weeks has been equally extraordinary, as the Republican Party has all-but torn itself apart, in full view of the public eye, over who might succeed the deposed party leader. In the background of the psychodrama, world events have exploded with the outbreak of war in the Middle East, raising the stakes in an almost Shakespearian fashion as Congress remains totally deadlocked in the face of an urgent need to respond.
Any understanding of the crisis must first look at the context behind it, a background that stretches as far back as last year. In the 2022 Midterm elections, the Republican Party managed to achieve a narrow majority over their Democratic rivals, winning 222 out of 435 seats in the House of Representatives. This razor-thin majority of five gave a large amount of power to a small extremist wing of the Republican Party, known as the House Freedom Caucus. That the block would wield a disproportionate amount of power was made immediately clear on day one of the new Congress, in the usually procedural vote to choose a new House speaker.
A Speaker vote had not even gone to a second round since 1923
The role of a Speaker is to coordinate the day-to-day matters of Congress and introduce legislation to be voted on by the members. Convention would have dictated that this role goes to Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Majority Leader and highest-ranking member of the largest party. Instead, elements of the House Freedom Caucus opposed his selection, and proceeded to nominate a string of rival candidates, none of whom even wanted the position. It took McCarthy 15 rounds of voting before he secured a majority and could be declared Speaker – before then, a Speaker vote had not even gone to a second round since 1923.
Many pundits predicted McCarthy would not be able to last a full month before being brought down by his new reform: in the end, he managed eight
The crucial concession that allowed McCarthy to end his Groundhog Day-style speaker bid was the promise of a rule-change that lowered the threshold for a so-called ‘motion to vacate’. This is the procedure through which members of Congress could call for a vote on removing the House Speaker, and previously it had needed the support of the majority of one party to go ahead. McCarthy’s change instead lowered the bar to just a single member of Congress – from then on, any one person could trigger a Speakership challenge.
Emerging from such an unprecedented fiasco, many pundits predicted McCarthy would not be able to last a full month before being brought down by his new reform: in the end, he managed eight. It was half a year in which he played an increasingly unsustainable balancing act between the mainstream and hard-line elements of his party, through repeatedly throwing the Freedom Caucus political red-meat. These came usually in the form of far-right legislation intended to appeal to the Caucus’s members, primarily spending cuts through slashing the budgets to federal welfare programs and various government departments. Barely any of this legislation would succeed in becoming law, however, instead being rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate. The kinds of compromises any other Speaker would have had to have made to succeed in this situation were impossible for McCarthy, with the threat of a single unhappy member of his party calling for a vote to remove him hanging over any action he took.
Quickly, observers could put a face to this single unhappy member – Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican Congressman for Florida. Since 2020, Gaetz has been under investigation for allegations of sex trafficking, a probe ultimately abandoned by the Department of Justice in February 2023. However, the House Ethics Committee, the body in charge of regulating and policing Representatives, decided in June to reopen their own investigation. Gaetz, outraged, held McCarthy personally responsible for the decision, and his opposition to McCarthy took on an increasingly personal nature as time went on. More and more frequently, Gaetz threatened to move for the motion to vacate – yet every time he ultimately demurred.
It became starkly clear that there was no credible successor for the deposed McCarthy
At the same time, the debate in Congress over government spending was reaching a climax. Bills intended to resolve issues over funding had been struck down repeatedly over the course of the year, blocked by House Democrats and either Moderate Republicans or the Freedom Caucus whenever McCarthy attempted to appease the other faction. By late September, the prospect of the U.S. government running out of money, thereby being forced to shut down, seemed inevitable.
To avert what would have been a significant humiliation for the Republican Party, McCarthy struck a deal with Democratic Congressmen, passing a stop-gap measure that provisioned spending for another forty-five days. For Gaetz and other members of the Freedom Caucus, a red line had been crossed. Gaetz finally moved for the motion to vacate the next day; what followed this was a parable in the dangers of overconfidence. McCarthy, seeking to project strength, rejected offers to delay or kill the vote by tabling it, and instead scheduled to hold it the next day. He then categorically rebuffed offers from the Democrats to save him in exchange for concessions, maintaining that he had the numbers to survive a vote.
In fact, he did not. Ultimately, McCarthy lost the vote 216-210. Every House Democrat voted against him, and crucially so did eight Freedom Caucus Republicans, led by Gaetz. McCarthy’s expulsion was the first time in history that a U.S. Speaker of the House had been successfully removed by a motion to vacate. There was outrage amongst the vast majority of House Republicans who had voted in support of the Speaker at the extreme rump who had deposed him. More than that, there was widespread dismay, as it became starkly clear that there was no credible successor for the deposed McCarthy.
At present there is a huge vacuum at the centre of American politics, and one that seemingly won’t be filled anytime soon
Leadership manoeuvres began almost immediately, with two front-runners: Representative Steve Scalise, McCarthy’s deputy and long-time rival, and Representative Jim Jordan, the founder of the House Freedom Caucus. Yet neither man has ever held serious widespread support in the party, and in the two weeks that have followed McCarthy’s fall both seem to have destroyed any prospect they ever had of claiming the Speakership. Largely, it has been a case of one destroying the other – Scalise has faced repeated attacks on his health and ability to lead the caucus. McCarthy, with whom Scalise has long held a rivalry, tasked his staff to campaign on Jordan’s behalf from the very beginning of the contest, leading to U.S. media sardonically dubbing the far-right Republican “Heir Jordan”. On October 8 he narrowly won a nomination vote against Jordan 113-99, although technicalities made the actual margin of victory 110-100. Just a day later, he was forced to withdraw his candidacy, with many blaming a determined campaign of sabotage by Team Jordan.
As for Jordan, his victory was hollow at best. In a second nomination vote on October 13, he won just 124 votes, losing 81 to Representative Austin Scott, who entered the contest five minutes before the nominations closed and who did not want the job anyway. A confirmatory vote held afterwards saw a whopping 55 Republican Congressmen declare they would refuse to back him in an official House vote. When he took his candidacy to the floor anyway, on October 17, he was roundly humiliated, seeing 20 members of his own party openly defy him to vote down his Speakership. At the time of writing, Jordan still intends to continue the fight, but many of his colleagues have silently written him off.
At present there is a huge vacuum at the centre of American politics, and one that seemingly won’t be filled anytime soon. The real world, however, is not nearly so accommodating; as the crisis in the Middle East rapidly escalates, the need to pass emergency funding measures through Congress grows increasingly crucial and remains impossible for as long as the Speakership crisis continues. There is the matter, too, of U.S. government funding, for which the stopgap runs out on November 15. A shutdown in a time of such major global crisis would be catastrophic for global stability, and deadly to America’s standing with her allies. It is a reminder of just how momentous the crisis has been: an event not just without precedent in all of America’s history, but that will likely have reverberations felt for decades to come.