Don’t count all your chickens before they hatch

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By weakening the authority of the U.S. House Speaker, the ‘Never Kevin’ caucus has been trying to legislate changes that run parallel to the demands at the basis of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Capitol Hill. Back in the 1800s, a similar Speaker vote required more than 100 rounds to reach a majority. That may be happening again. It gives democracy a black eye. 

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on January 9, 2023.

OTTAWA—Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. The message has come across loud and clear to aspiring American House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who was eventually elected on Jan. 7 House Speaker on the 15th ballot.

The Republican establishment choice was so sure he would get the job that his staff already address him as speaker and his furniture has been moved into the office.

But even as he limps across the finish line, he will be weakened, the Republican caucus will be in tatters and the institution of Speaker will be considerably diminished.

This Washington circus is proof positive that a republican system is not always the best form of governance.

It just so happens that the American Republicans have fractured into the kind of government one gets when the solidarity of parliamentary caucuses is replaced with a system where each representative stands alone.

In recent years there has been much attention in Canada paid to constituent assemblies, where Members of Parliament are expected to ignore party promises and simply reflect the views of constituents.

In Canada, that political division breaks upon geographic lines, with Alberta and Saskatchewan becoming increasingly isolated in their moves to the right.

In the United States, constituents are not defined by a geographic area of governance. They rally round a cause, and work politically to elect those who will simply espouse it their cause.

In the case of Republicans who will determine McCarthy’s fate, they don’t really believe in government. Some are even rabid supporters of the Jan. 6, 2021, attempt to overtake the Capitol Hill Building and overthrow the Congress.

These extremists are able to pursue agendas as they see fit with no regard to caucus cohesion or the fact that their actions are leading to a weakening in public belief in democracy.

It was the first time in a century that the nominated speaker was not elected on the first ballot.

And the chaos on the floor of the House has been largely driven by the rump group in the Republican party that actually appeared emboldened by the situation.

“Freedom caucus” speaker nominee Byron Donalds of Florida characterized the mess as “an invigorating day for America.”

To the rest of the world, watching this debacle unfold, it appears as though the American political system is broken.

There does not appear to be a way to build consensus and collaboration in government where the importance of internal political solidarity has been blown up.

Instead, the current focus appears on handcuffing colleagues and breaking down the structures of government, including the power of the Speaker.

In a parliamentary system, there are moments when one’s personal point of view runs counter to the majority or to the direction charted by the leadership. In some instances, there is an irreconcilable internal division.

One good example in the case of the Liberals was the internal split over the Meech Lake Accord. It caused serious caucus rancour and eventually contributed to the defeat of a constitutional package that would have seen Quebec sign the Canadian Constitution.

On the caucus side, one quarter of Liberal members split from the leadership and voted against the accord. In the end, the agreement failed to receive endorsement from all the provinces.

But at the end of the day, the parliamentary system places a focus on solidarity and nurtures the importance of consensus within political parties.

Even in the British meltdown that faced Boris Johnson, his parliamentary caucus was quick to come together.

His successor suffered the ignominy of being turfed within months. But the British political system did not unravel.

In the United States, it feels as though the political system is unravelling.

The members of this freedom caucus seem to revel in the chaos that they have created.

On the Canadian front, the so-called 2023 “Freedom Convoy” has been cancelled.

One of the reasons cited for the cancellation was Ontario legislation that included heavy financial penalties for illegal convoys.

The only political party in Canada that supported the convoy was the Conservative party, but even that party has moderated its previously supportive rhetoric.

In the United States, it almost appears that the Group of 20 Republican Congresspeople is actually trying to bring down their own majority.

By weakening the authority of the Speaker, the “Never Kevin” caucus has been trying to legislate changes that run parallel to the demands at the basis of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Capitol Hill.

Back in the 1800s, a similar Speaker vote required more than 100 rounds to reach a majority.

That may be happening again. It gives democracy a black eye.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.