I am going to describe a game to you to assist you in understanding what is really going in the U.S. House of Representative and in Washington, DC, more broadly. This is my way of explaining why we cannot simultaneously avoid a government shutdown and have a partisan Republican Speaker of the House. If Kevin McCarthy’s demise didn’t convince you, maybe this will help you understand the math that is driving everything behind the scenes. Because math is at the root of the problem, along with some arbitrary rules.
Our game has three players, two measuring scales attached to a water dispenser, and two empty eight ounce drinking glasses.
The first scale comes with 221 red marbles, 212 blue marbles and one green marble. For some reason one red and one blue marble were missing from the box when we opened the game.
The second scale comes with 51 blue marbles and 49 red marbles. There is also one orange marble.
Marbles are placed on the respective scales and, if they are unbalanced, water is dispensed into the respective glasses. The objective is for player one and two to pour the exact same amount of water into the glasses they control, and for player three to agree both that they are equal and that they chose the right amount to pour.
Here are the rules:
Player one controls scale one. Before he or she can start, one of their 433 marbles must be swapped out for the green marble. All marbles are eligible but these are sentient marbles and a majority of them have to agree with the choice. Until we have a green marble, we cannot proceed.
Once a green marble is selected, it then chooses a number between 1 and 8, standing for how many ounces of water it thinks should go in the glass. A majority has to agree with this choice or we cannot proceed. If a majority does agree, the majority-marbles are placed on one side of the scale, the minority-marbles are placed on the other side, and the agreed amount of the water dispenses into the glass.
Player two controls scale two. A blue marble is selected to pick a number between 1 and 8 and ask the other marbles if they approve. If they approve, the majority-marbles are placed on one side of the scale and the minority-marbles are placed on the other side. In the case of a tie, the orange marble must approve the choice. If this doesn’t work, the blue marble must pick a different number and try again.
Once player one and player two have both succeeded in securing a majority for their number and water has dispensed into their glasses, we check to see if the glasses have an equal amount of water. If they do not, player one and player two must work together to fix the problem. Perhaps player one chose four and player two chose six, and they can agree to meet in the middle at five ounces. If they cannot agree, the game is over and everyone loses.
Once they’ve filled both glasses with the same amount of water, player three enters the game. If player three does not agree they’ve chosen the right amount, the game resets to the beginning. If player three agrees with the amount and judges that both glasses have the correct amount of water, then the game is over and everyone wins.
A lot has to happen right to win the game but there are many ways to lose.
For example, if player one cannot get a majority to agree on who should be the green marble, the game is lost. If player one cannot get a majority to agree on a number, the game is lost. If player two cannot get a majority to agree on a number, the game is lost. If player one and player two cannot agree on a number, the game is lost. If player three doesn’t agree with the number players one and two have agreed to, the game is lost.
Now imagine the following scenario.
Player three picks six and can accept nothing lower than five.
Player two also picks six and can accept nothing lower than five.
Player one is okay with five but is prohibited from picking anything higher than three.
The game is unwinnable, right?
Well, yes, but why is player one stuck on three?
It’s because they made their own arbitrary rule that’s not part of the game. They decided that if a red marble becomes a green marble, it cannot go higher than three or it will immediately cease being green. They placed no such restriction on the blue marbles, but they refuse to pick a blue marble to make the choice.
Now, this might make sense if a majority of the marbles didn’t agree that the number five would be fine. But they’re totally okay with five. Five is the number all three players can agree on. Five ounces of water in each glass wins the game. When the red marbles insist on choosing one of their own to be the green marble it’s an instant loser because of their arbitrary self-imposed three percent rule that is not even in the rulebook.
If you’re having trouble following along, Player one is the House of Representatives, Player two is the Senate, Player three is the president, red marbles are Republican lawmakers, blue marbles are Democratic lawmakers, the green marble is the Speaker of the House, the orange marble is the vice-president, and the glasses of water are the respective House and Senate bills that fund the government and avoid a November shutdown.
In mid-November, our country is going to play this game. We will try to fund the government using these unwinnable rules. Jim Jordan might be the green marble. Maybe Steve Scalise will be the green marble. Could be some other red marble that gets a shot. There is no way they can succeed.
But I have a secret. This isn’t actually a game that can be lost. I didn’t tell you, but the glasses are guaranteed to get filled in exact equal measure and win the approval of the president. There may be a delay of weeks or even months. It may be that player one has to bypass the rule about not proceeding without the green marble’s approval. They can use a discharge petition to force a funding bill onto the floor that meets the five ounce requirement. But the government will eventually get funded and it will be the House that makes the concessions because the House is the only holdout, and there’s an actual majority in the House for five ounces.
The only question is how much turbulence and nonsense will go on getting from here to there.
And the simplest solution is staring everyone in the face. The red marbles have to do one of three things. They can get rid of the arbitrary three percent rule that keeps the glass emptier than anyone else wants. This means allowing their green marble to do what McCarthy did without removing it from power. This appears beyond their capabilities.
Or they can elect a red marble but immediately ignore them by using a discharge petition to force a higher spending package on the floor. That makes little sense. Why elect a floor leader and then take away their power to lead the floor?
The last option is actually a hybrid. They could just choose a blue marble to be Speaker. More plausibly, a few red marbles could negotiate with the blue marbles to create a bipartisan majority that will agree to fund the government at five ounces. One of these red marbles would become green but the blue marbles would get to share power with them, including on the House committees.
I can almost assure you that they will first attempt the second “impotent floor leader” option here, assuming they can even agree on a green marble amongst themselves. But the last option makes the most sense, because it allows the people who can win the game to be in charge of playing it.
The result winds up being the same anyway. Remember, the game cannot be lost and the people willing to fund the government, which I call “the functional majority,” are guaranteed to have their way. Why not have them govern the rest of the House’s business, too?
Now, I can see you shaking your head saying to yourself that this is not going to happen. But, you know what else is guaranteed? Before long, we’re guaranteed to have a new Speaker of the House. And if the Republicans can’t get a majority using only their own marbles, then they will need Democratic marbles. And if they need Democratic marbles to pick a Speaker, then it will be someone the Democrats can work with and who will share power with them.
Now, the House can’t do anything without a Speaker, so the pressure will be massive to choose one. And the Republicans will probably find a way to choose one without Democratic votes. But then the government funding will run out in mid-November and we’ll get to the real logical driver of all of this, which is the absolute necessity to fund the government. A shutdown can’t last long, either.
The math drives this. The functional majority is the group that pays our bills on time and funds the government, and it’s made up of mostly blue marbles. The green marble can be in that group or outside that group. Other than for timing purposes, the distinction hardly matters. We can scrape by with discharge petition after discharge petition, or have the Republicans continuously defenestrate their own leadership for avoiding or ending a shutdown.
It all gets to the same end. But how much better to just make the House work by having a governing coalition that actually represents what the majority wants on spending?
So, why did I choose to use the marble analogy to explain all this?
Because people are so accustomed to thinking in strictly partisan terms that I wanted to make it more objective. What matters is who funds the government. Whether the votes are blue or red is irrelevant. You will always have enough marbles. All that changes is the mix of marbles, or how many are red and how many are blue. The majority in Congress can be any mix at all, and that’s also true of picking a Speaker. It is the Speaker of the House, not the Speaker of the Republicans or the Speaker of the Democrats.
Here’s the last math fact. The Republicans have 221 members in a (currently) 433-member body, but they don’t have a functional majority and so really have no right to act as if they’re in the majority. The sooner moderate Republicans figure this out, the better. But they’ll have to be hit over the head many times before they think objectively about this situation. After all, the media cannot seem to understand it either.