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'I'm not even a congressman': House lawmakers and staffers can't function while speaker fight drags on

Lawmakers won't be sworn in until the speaker election has concluded, affecting their ability to get national security briefings to helping constituents.
US Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (C) reacts during a conversation as voting continues for new speaker at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 5, 2023. - The US House of Representatives plunged deeper into crisis Thursday as Republican favorite Kevin McCarthy failed again to win the speakership -- entrenching a three-day standoff that has paralyzed the lower chamber of Congress.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., center, reacts during a conversation as voting continues for new speaker Thursday.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — There is no speaker of the House. There are no active House lawmakers. There are no House committees.

At the moment, there is no functioning U.S. House of Representatives.

The three-day-long Republican standoff over Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s speaker bid has meant that none of the 434 people elected to the House in November have been sworn in, leaving children and spouses who traveled to Washington to celebrate with the members-elect floating around the marbled building waiting for something, anything, to happen.

Lawmakers can’t be sworn in until after a speaker is chosen — it's the first order or business of the new Congress — but a band of 20 ultraconservative rebels has blocked McCarthy, R-Calif., on 11 consecutive ballots before the House adjourned until Friday at noon. Other business in the House is paralyzed, as well, and the rules that previously governed the lower chamber have expired.

Freshman members-elect haven’t been able to set up their House email. Committees, now controlled by Republicans, haven’t been able to hire new staffers. And lawmakers have lost their security clearances and are forbidden to receive sensitive information or enter secure briefing rooms known as SCIFs — because they aren’t technically members.

“I’m not even a congressman. My wife kinda likes that,” quipped incoming Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas.

What's been disrupted? “Meetings, hearings, classified briefings. Everything," he said.

Lawmakers said the chaotic speaker floor fight is having real-world impacts that are invisible to most people watching the drama on television — from national security concerns to constituent casework.

“I’m a member of the Intelligence Committee, but we can’t get national security briefings or go into the SCIF until this is resolved,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas.

Reps. Don Bacon, R-Neb., Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and other Armed Services Committee members said they had to cancel a meeting this week about China with Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, because they lost their security clearances.

“I was going to have a meeting with him on China, and he can’t talk to me now in the classified realm because I don’t have security clearance,” Bacon told reporters Thursday.

Bacon, a McCarthy ally, said constituents are also being affected. Because members-elect aren’t technically sitting lawmakers yet, they can’t contact federal agencies like the Veterans Affairs or State departments if they have issues with disability benefits or passports.

“Let’s say, for example, you have a VA disability issue — the VA can’t address this right now,” Bacon said. “When we get sworn in, I can do it, but right now we’re not allowed. We can call the agencies, but they’re not allowed to help us right now. So this hurts constituents nationwide.”

Bacon said “constituents need to speak up” to put pressure on the McCarthy foes and get them to flip.

The presidential line of succession has been interrupted, as well. The speaker is second in line to the presidency after the vice president. But with no speaker, Senate President Pro Tempore Patty Murray, D-Wash., is now second in line.

Some members worry they and their staff members will stop receiving paychecks if the new Republican majority remains unable to elect a speaker. Incoming House Rules Committee Chair Tom Cole, R-Okla., said members are expecting to get paid through Jan. 13.

“I think everybody is taken care of at least that long,” he said.

After that, paychecks could dry up until the House elects a speaker and gets organized. Cole said the exact details of how that would play out are still unclear.

Asked whether he is currently a member of Congress, Cole said his election victory has been certified by the state of Oklahoma. “All I know is nobody’s stopped me from going in the chamber, and I’ve been able to vote every time,” he said.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., the most senior Republican on the Administration Committee, said he had authorized lawmakers to use their Member’s Representational Allowances, or MRAs, to pay for staff salaries in the short term. Some lawmakers are asking questions about whether their staffers will be covered by health care if the Republican impasse drags on.

“At least the staff are going to be able to stay on and help,” Loudermilk said in an interview. 

As for House-funded health care? “That’s up in the air,” he said.

The far-right rebels who refuse to vote for McCarthy aren’t sweating the dysfunction being broadcast around the world. Some see it as a feature, not a bug.

“Let’s be honest. Most of what Congress does is bad,” Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., said on Fox News.

“Most of what we do to the country while claiming to do it for the country is bad. These last couple of days are probably the most productive couple of days I’ve spent in my first two years in Congress. We shouldn’t be in a hurry to make a bad decision.”

He said the standoff may take “a couple of days or maybe even a couple of weeks” to resolve.