How Polarization Sent Washington to the Brink of a Shutdown

September 30, 2023 | By Aaron Zitner and Lindsay Wise

The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—The small group of House Republicans bucking their party leaders and trying to push the government toward a shutdown would have carried a dismissive label in past years. They would be called gadflies—annoying to colleagues, and easily swatted away.

Today, the gadflies dominate the political scene.

They are the members using inflammatory rhetoric and disruptive tactics to draw media attention and campaign donations from the most partisan voters—giving them power to oppose their own party leaders and a majority of their House GOP colleagues. In doing so, they have become heroes to many in the GOP but symbols of what many voters say they lament: The drastic polarization of politics, where the most combative politicians can command status while centrists struggle to be heard.

They have also resisted all efforts to prevent a shutdown from happening at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. Several of the House’s most stubborn rebels joined forces to defeat House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s attempt Friday to keep the government open for another 30 days. But McCarthy and his fellow leaders found a way—for now, at least—around the conservative blockade Saturday, passing a 45-day funding measure with near-unanimous Democratic support.

While 126 Republicans voted for the bill, 90 opposed it, and it isn’t clear yet how or whether some of those foes might try to exact retribution against McCarthy. The Senate can now avert a shutdown, at least until mid-November, by quickly passing the bill.

The defectors on that and other recent votes are using social media and online fundraising to build national profiles and liberate themselves from party leaders. One member of the bloc pushing for a shutdown, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, scooped up more campaign cash than nearly every other House member in 2022, partly on incendiary comments that rile up her party.

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, another leading antagonist of House leaders—particularly McCarthy—is a star in conservative media, with 2.5 million followers on the X social-media platform, formerly known as Twitter. If Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana runs for Senate, as expected, his calling card will be the pain, rather than the aid, he has given his party in Washington.

Every government shutdown—there have been 10 since 1977 lasting more than three days—ends with a political compromise. But these House members, part of a loose group of about 20 pushing McCarthy to demand deep spending cuts and conservative policy riders, raise the prospect of a prolonged suspension of government services. They have blocked budget legislation favored by hundreds of their House GOP colleagues and shown no inclination to make even basic bipartisan compromises.

“I’m doing everything in my power to stop the uniparty…The battle is on,” Gaetz said Friday on the X platform.

Gaetz and some other rebels say they are simply fighting for fiscal responsibility and the importance of considering annual spending bills one by one, rather than in massive year-end packages crafted behind closed doors.

But some GOP colleagues question their motives. “I’m always a little skeptical of people who think their vote is motivated by principle but the other side can’t possibly be,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R., S.D.), who chairs the centrist-leaning Republican Main Street Caucus. “That seems to me to be a level of narcissism that stands in the way of governance.”

The problem for GOP leaders: Their control of campaign funds and committee assignments doesn’t carry the power it once did to force dissidents to toe the party line, allowing wayward members to essentially commandeer a House that Republicans control by only a handful of seats.

At the same time, a populist trend in both parties—and most notably in the GOP under former President Donald Trump—now rewards lawmakers who are most eager to knock down political institutions, even those led by their own party. Trump himself has urged lawmakers to shut the government unless all conservative demands are met. 

Gerrymandering by both parties has ensured that only a handful of members ever face a competitive election, prompting lawmakers to cater to the most ideological voters in their party, who tend to vote in primaries, rather than the political center.

Of the 21 Republicans who opposed McCarthy’s last-minute effort Friday to pass a short-term funding bill, only one—Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado—had a close election last year, winning by less than one-half of 1% of the vote. Only one other defector, Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona, won with less than a 10-point margin.

It is a party that many of the old-time conservatives don’t recognize. “The basic style of the populists is division, grievance, fighting. They constantly brag that they’re going to break things up or come to Washington with a blowtorch,” said former Sen. John Danforth, who represented Missouri for three terms, ending in 1995.

“The essence of conservatism is the opposite,” he said. “It’s holding things together. To insist on ‘my way or the highway’ and make nonnegotiable demands—to me that’s just the opposite of conservatism and the opposite of the genius of the framers of the Constitution.”

Bruce Mehlman, a former Republican aide in Congress and official in President George W. Bush’s administration, said social media had undermined the old power structure in Congress. “In the old days, you needed the party to raise money, build a profile and grow power. The system rewarded team play,” he said. “Now, you can raise more running against the party and quickly build a national following as a populist disrupter of the establishment.”

The same forces have propelled some Democrats to prominence almost as quickly as they have arrived in Washington. At age 28, for example, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York became a social media sensation and favorite of her party’s liberal wing upon unseating a prominent centrist in the 2018 Democratic primary. However, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi had more success in corralling her party’s progressives and passing priority legislation than has McCarthy so far, even while Democrats had a similarly narrow margin in Biden’s first two years as president.

These factors heighten the problems that McCarthy is facing because of his slim, 221-212 margin, which means he can lose no more than four of his GOP colleagues unless he wants to pass bills with Democratic support—which would likely prompt conservatives to try to end his speakership. It is the fifth-narrowest margin in history, Pew Research Center calculations find.

But the narrow margin doesn’t tell the full story. In 2001, the Senate was evenly divided, 50-50, before a party switch gave Democrats a slim, two-seat majority. Yet that Senate passed a big tax cut that was a major Bush administration priority, as well as a landmark education overhaul called No Child Left Behind and the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance restrictions. 

The difference: 30 senators at the time belonged to a party that didn’t match their state’s vote in the most recent presidential election, meaning those senators weren’t free to cater only to their party’s core voters. Today, by contrast, only five senators and 23 of the 435 House members face similar cross-pressures.

“The margins are thinner,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R., Ark.), a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee. “And the number of people who—I call them free agents—the number of people in our conference who kind of go their own way is higher. They dance to their own beat.”

And Trump adds complications by cheering on the rebellion. “It kind of promotes that free agency,” said Womack. 

Recent election trends show how the incentives in Washington have changed, with lawmakers rewarded for ensuring a secure bond with their party’s core voters.

Lawmakers are less reliant on political parties for money. Greene, for example, was the ninth-largest fundraiser in the 2022 election cycle among current House members, and 98% of her money came from individual donors rather than party, corporate or political-action committee sources, data from the nonpartisan group Open Secrets shows. Ocasio-Cortez ranked 10th, and essentially all of her money came from individual donors.

Fewer lawmakers have incentives to appeal to constituents of both parties. The 23 House members representing districts that favored the opposite party for president—five Democrats in Trump-backing districts and 18 Republicans in Biden districts—are one of the smallest such groups in recent decades, data from the University of Virginia Center for Politics show.

In 2000, 86 districts picked a House member from one party and a presidential candidate from the other party. In 1984, there were 190 such districts.

Some of the House rebels may be charting a path to higher office, and a reputation for combativeness and challenging institutions could be helpful in a base-driven Republican primary. Rosendale, for example, would be running for the Senate from the political right against a candidate favored by the state’s Republican governor and prominent GOP senators. Gaetz is considering a bid for Florida governor, in which he could face Rep. Byron Donalds, who unlike Gaetz not only voted for the short-term funding measure on Friday but also was the lead sponsor. 

These and a wider group of McCarthy antagonists have made life hard for the speaker in recent weeks as lawmakers worked—unsuccessfully—to pass stopgap government funding and forestall a shutdown.

One sign of McCarthy’s difficulty came in procedural votes that draw little attention beyond Congress but are essential to its operations. Three times this year, the House voted to reject the rules that set terms for debating a piece of legislation and normally attract near-unanimous majority party support. They were the first such rules defeated in 20 years, according to experts on Congress.

McCarthy has taken significant steps to please the rebellious wing, such as announcing the start of a formal Biden impeachment inquiry—a step that makes some swing-district Republicans wary.

Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina opposed McCarthy on a recent procedural vote on spending bills, though on Friday he backed the short-term spending bill. Still, he isn’t giving the speaker much room to break from conservative policy positions as the inevitable negotiations begin with the Senate.

Norman said earlier this week that he would likely vote to strip McCarthy of the speaker’s gavel if he wound up “teaming up with Democrats.”

He said he wasn’t concerned about Republican lawmakers like himself being blamed for a shutdown. “I’m not worried about optics, I’m worried about reality,” he said. “The reality is, our border’s unacceptable—it’s an invasion. We’re going bankrupt. That’s reality.” 

His constituents, he said, “know we’re doing it for the good of the country.”