We've been here before

Published January 12, 2023

By Tom Campbell

Many of us were mesmerized in watching some or most of the fifteen votes required to elect a Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. I can’t remember which round it was when it hit me that North Carolina has been here before.
Our state was breaking the shackles of one-party political domination, on the way to party parity. Our first sign of this was perhaps 1988, when Democrat Joe Mavretic formed a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to oust Liston Ramsey from eight years as NC House Speaker. Republican voter registrations grew steadily and in the 1994 Newt Gingrich-led Revolution, not only did the GOP capture the Congress but they also won the plurality in the NC House, electing Republican Harold Brubaker as Speaker. It would be another fifteen years before Republicans took control of our legislature in both chambers.
While it was fascinating to watch the recent Speaker drama finally elect Kevin McCarthy on the 15th ballot, it was nothing compared to the intrigue we witnessed in the Tarheel state in 2003. In the November 2002 election voters elected 61 Republicans and 59 Democrats to the NC House. The closeness of that election was fascinating, but the drama grew more memorable when it was suddenly announced that Republican Representative Michael Decker, who many of us remember lived in a motor-home parked at the legislative building, declared he was switching his registration and would become a Democrat, thus giving both parties 60 members. The news rippled through the Capital City, causing all sorts of speculation as to what prompted this decision. Suddenly, North Carolina had a 60-60 House membership. Who would become speaker?
After the 2003 session began and about a week of voting, no one tallied the 61 votes needed to win the speakership outright. The intrigue continued when the two parties agreed to a strange power-sharing arrangement. For two years, the Republican speaker presided one day of session, the Democrat wielded the gavel on the next day. Years later we learned “the rest of the story.” Speaker Jim Black had delivered $25,000 in cash in a paper bag to Decker in an IHOP bathroom as payment for Decker to switch parties. When it all came to light, Black went to prison. It isn’t surprising that the 2003 session wasn’t very productive; Democrats regained the majority two years later.
What took so many votes to name a Speaker this year? McCarthy met with serious opposition and was blocked by the House Freedom Caucus. Formed in 2015, with one of its founders being North Carolinian Mark Meadows, this ultra-conservative group of about 40 Republicans is known for disruption, contention, and a willingness to stop anything or anyone they oppose. Even though they have just over 15 percent of Republican House membership this hardline bloc votes together. They forced the resignations of two former Republican House Speakers. One of them, John Boehner, said, “They can’t tell you what they are for. They can tell you everything they are against. They are anarchists. They want total chaos. Tear it all down and start over.”
It was the Freedom Caucus members who held out and forced so many votes. Only when they had demonstrated their power and maneuvered to vote “present” was McCarthy elected. But he and all other Republican House members recognize who holds the real power. One pundit remarked that McCarthy shouldn’t order new drapes; he might not be around long enough to hang them.
The message is clear. Don’t look for much legislation in this just convened 188th session of congress. Even if Republicans can somehow wrangle the votes to approve a measure it is unlikely to be approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate. The smart money is saying little will get done over the next two years.
Again, this is reminiscent of what occurred in 1948. President Harry Truman was running for re-election against New York Governor Thomas Dewey. Truman’s campaign strategy was to run against the Republican controlled 80th Congress, calling them the “do nothing Congress.” Dewey was heavily favored, and we still remember the newspaper headlines the morning after the election proclaiming Dewey the winner. As more votes were tallied the headline proved wrong and Truman won. I couldn’t help but wonder if we could see “déjà vu all over again,” in 2024. Could we see Joe Biden run against a “do nothing” House on his way to reelection? Stay tuned and get out the popcorn popper. It should be entertaining even if frightening.
There are serious issues facing us right now. A budget, the debt ceiling, immigration, climate change and any number of crises beg resolution. Above all, we need unity, not further divisiveness and uncivil partisanship. But if the recent election of the House Speaker is any indicator of what to expect, it is probably too much to hope for consensus instead of chaos and contention.  
Remember, we’ve been here before.