McCarthy is not a leader. Republicans don't trust each other. And it all benefits Democrats.

Democrats have a choice to make. The politically wise thing to do is stand by and watch Republicans flounder. And then there's the responsible thing to do.

Chris Truax
Opinion columnist

The chaos and paralysis on display in the House of Representatives might have shocked Americans, but it would have been familiar to anyone who grew up in a parliamentary democracy. Because what played out in Congress was not the election of a House speaker. It was the formation of a coalition government.

House Republicans still call themselves Republicans, but they are actually now divided into three distinct parties, the Republican Governance Group, MAGA Republicans and the Freedom Caucus. These three don’t just have different priorities. They have different goals.

Worse, as is often the case in a coalition government, they don’t really trust each other, thus necessitating a complex power-sharing arrangement in the form of committee representation, rule changes and written agreements.

The problem with the House

Coalition governments cobbled together with the support of small, ideologically driven factions like the Freedom Caucus are usually neither effective nor long-lived. Sooner or later, they collapse under the weight of internal disagreement. When a government breaks down in a parliamentary democracy, the solution is a quick election and a new government.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., takes a selfie with the newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Jan. 6, 2023.

But we don’t live in a parliamentary democracy. If the House of Representatives under Speaker Kevin McCarthy finds itself frozen by intra-Republican ideological food fights, no legislation will be passed until January 2025. Shutting down the government and defaulting on our debt is not an option. And yet, after last week’s display of dysfunction by House Republicans, it is, nonetheless, a possibility.

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It is hard to overestimate how disastrous this would be. Apart from the chaos in the financial markets, even a temporary default caused by a failure to raise America's debt limit would slash America's credit rating and dramatically increase the cost of government borrowing. Defaulting on the national debt could easily drive the cost of servicing that debt to a trillion dollars annually. That’s about what we spend on the military.

A lesson from history

This isn’t just speculation. We’ve trod this path before. Back in 2011, when Standard & Poors cut the federal government’s credit rating, it commented, “The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy.”

That instability is worse today than it was in 2011. McCarthy could be the weakest House speaker in U.S. history. As few as five angry Republicans will be able to remove McCarthy from the chair assuming that Democrats are inclined to back their play. Every piece of legislation will now require unanimous consent – from the Republican caucus.

Given the nature of that caucus, that’s unworkable. But can it be avoided?

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How to work around things

Fortunately, there is a sort of break-glass-in-case-of-emergency motion that House Democrats can use to keep the basic functions of government ticking despite a Republican inability to govern. Called a “discharge petition,” it allows a majority of House members to bring a bill to the floor for a vote without the speaker’s consent.

Ironically, the discharge petition was born out of the last deadlock over electing a speaker a hundred years ago. Doubly ironically, it was intended as a way of circumventing a too-powerful speaker rather than as a method of propping up a weak one.

If all 212 House Democrats want to bring a bill to the floor over McCarthy’s objection, they only need the support of six Republicans – five if Democrats win the special election in Virginia next month – to make it happen.

Obviously, for a lot of legislation, this won’t happen. It’s hard to imagine a piece of social legislation that would tempt house Republicans to defy their caucus, even if they supported it personally. But when it comes to raising the debt ceiling or passing a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), it might be a different story.

Democrats have a path for cooperation

The traditional method of passing something like an NDAA is for party leaders to confer and hammer out a compromise. But McCarthy is not a leader. At best, he’s a mediator and a poor choice for a negotiating partner.

One of the first rules of negotiation is to never negotiate with someone who doesn’t have the authority to make a deal.

To keep the government running, Democrats need to stop thinking in terms of the usual party dynamics and look for ways to reach agreements on narrow issues with individual Republicans rather than with the Republican caucus as a whole. McCarthy might not be able to bring a debt ceiling bill to the floor over the objections of the Freedom Caucus, but that doesn’t mean that lots of members of the Republican Governance Group don’t support it – and it only takes six.

Chris Truax

Democrats should make this function a part of their leadership structure by creating a “Director of Legislative Outreach.” The DLO would be tasked with keeping back channels open to individual governance-minded Republicans and keeping close tabs on what they will support and what they won’t.

When the crunch comes, Democrats can use that information to cobble together a deal and keep the lights on even if McCarthy can’t.

Democrats have a choice to make. The politically wise thing to do is to stand by and watch Republicans flounder. And it’s true that defunding the military and defaulting on America’s debt would probably make Republicans unelectable in 2024.

But the responsible thing to do is to govern.

Chris Truax, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is an appellate lawyer in San Diego and a member of The Guardrails of Democracy Project.