The last time there was a gaping hole where the speaker of the House should sit, all of nine months ago, former five-term congressman Justin Amash of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was on Capitol Hill, watching his old nemesis Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.) twist in the wind, and reminding people in a loud stage whisper that you don't have to be a sitting member of Congress to be speaker. Heck, you don't even have to belong to a major political party!
Like a lot of Libertarian dreams, Amash's longshot bid to be a one-term compromise speaker fizzled without attracting much attention. This time around, aside from tweeting out some good riddances, parliamentary arcana, and the odd Lord of the Rings joke, the process-obsessed ex-pol has exhibited no particular lust for the cursed gavel.
But that's too bad—for the country, if not quite Amash himself.
As McCarthy-defenestrator Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–Fla.) has aptly demonstrated this week, American politics is mired in an extended populist rut, punctuated by camera-hogging debate-team alumni rehearsing their future television hosting gigs via short-term stunts of political destruction. Amash is no stranger to attempted Speaker-topplings himself, and applauded McCarthy's ouster as a "huge positive for the institution and the American people in the long run," but he's also earnestly serious about the kind Roberts Rules of Order stuff most bomb-throwers have little patience for.
"Kevin McCarthy promised to open up the House, but he never made good on that promise. In this entire term, there has been only ONE legislative item that had an open amendment process—a very narrow, relatively inconsequential bill passed in January," Amash tweeted Tuesday. "Spending bills, by rule and tradition going back over 200 years, are supposed to be freely amendable from the floor by any member of the House able to garner the votes, yet ZERO of the spending bills McCarthy has brought to the floor have been considered under an open rule."
Gaetz and the other seven GOP rebels were both philosophically and factually correct that McCarthy failed to fully deliver on his promise of restoring the House's regular order of originating and debating and passing 12 separate appropriations bills, but as regular order fan (and Amash pal) Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.) told Reason's Eric Boehm before yesterday's vote, the conspiracy put too little thought into what comes next. "We're going to devolve to the former method [of appropriations]," Massie warned, "which was an omnibus bill every year and gang warfare to try and get your thing in the omnibus bill."
The past five House Speakers—Republicans Dennis Hastert, John Boehner, and Paul Ryan, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.), and now McCarthy—have over the past quarter-century treated the job like a fiefdom, shutting down the historical amendment process, treating their own party's backbenchers like fundraisers more than legislators, and originating budget deals in backdoor meetings with Senate and White House officials rather than on the open floor with the people's representatives. Since 1998, the federal government has been operating under a "continuing resolution"—instead of a properly appropriated budget bill—for more than one-third of the time, according to the Congressional Research Service.
"I've never been shy about the fact that I'd like to be speaker of the House," Amash told me during his January trial ballooning. "I would do a good job precisely because I want to go and do what the speaker of the House is supposed to do: Open up the process. I get a thrill from that….I get a thrill from having our government work the way it was intended under our constitutional system."
Nerd! But also, couldn't we use a few nerds in our overly Biff Tannen-esque politics?
Americans' trust in supposedly neutral institutions—the federal government, Congress, the Supreme Court, the police, public schools, higher education, the media, and even the military—is at or near historic lows. Where these institutions intersect most with politics, professionals within them have increasingly responded to this populist moment by rejecting neutrality altogether and going even harder against the Bad Side.
One of the anti-McCarthy GOP rebels, for example, Rep. Andy Biggs (R–Ariz.), mixes his principled opposition to continuing resolutions with calls for President Joe Biden to be put "behind bars," denunciations of the "bizarre witch hunt" against Donald Trump, and some of the richest electoral conspiracy-mongering you'll see this side of Steve Bannon. Biggs's friend Rep. Jim Jordan (R–Ohio), an early candidate to replace McCarthy, would be guaranteed to carry water for Trump while supercharging impeachment against Democrats.
Putting any Libertarian (or true independent) in the speaker's chair could be a bold step out of that partisan quicksand; selecting a work-with-but-also-criticize-both-sides wonk like Amash would be a potentially galvanizing moment in an American political culture starved for any sign of hope.
Which is why it almost certainly won't happen.
"A good speaker," Amash tweeted Wednesday morning, "would follow the Constitution, uphold the agreed-upon rules, let everyone read the bills and genuinely participate, keep the House transparent and accountable, and mainly stay out of the way as America's elected representatives draft, debate, and amend legislation."
Yes, yes, he or she would. Too bad we won't have one.