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Say this for the new Republicans in Congress: They made history. Now they just need to start making an agenda, rather than stumbling onward in discord and disarray.

For the first time in a century, members of the House of Representatives failed to elect a speaker on the first ballot. Nineteen Republicans voted against their party’s leading candidate, Representative Kevin McCarthy, leaving him 15 votes shy of victory. The Democratic Party’s unanimous choice for the job, Hakeem Jeffries, secured more votes than McCarthy. Further rounds of votes went no better for the GOP. (As of press time Friday the House had yet to appoint a speaker.)

There’s nothing wrong with multiple ballots to elect a speaker, per se. If a party is torn between competing leadership factions, a speaker’s race provides a good forum for the debate. In this case, however, all of Congress is being held hostage by a small group of right-wing extremists who have spent weeks extracting concessions from McCarthy that — even if he’s elected — will make governing a closely divided House nearly impossible.

A more prudent leader in such a situation might’ve asked moderate Democratic lawmakers for their votes, thus avoiding this mess and laying the groundwork for a productively bipartisan session. McCarthy ruled out doing so early on. Now he needs nearly every Republican vote to win the job, which explains his solicitous attitude toward the extremists.

It also explains why McCarthy has had so little to say about a freshman GOP representative named George Santos. Politicians are known for stretching the truth. Santos was elected on a résumé that was a lie from top to bottom, one of the most brazenly fraudulent cons ever put over on the voting public. He simply made up his family heritage, educational background, career achievements and just about everything else. Credit Long Island’s previously obscure North Shore Leader for digging up a scandal that the rest of the media missed. Federal prosecutors are now investigating whether Santos’s deceptions included campaign-finance violations. (Santos denies wrongdoing.)

These kinds of distractions are what happens when a political party effectively ignores public policy. After a campaign in which culture-war issues took the place of an actual governing agenda — and in which the GOP nominated numerous on-message candidates who were clearly unfit for office — House Republicans have found themselves in power without a plan. Rather than looking to solve real problems, their top priority seems to be a scheme to kneecap the Office of Congressional Ethics, which is as bad as it sounds.

The ethics office is meant to review outside complaints about congressional wrongdoing, and to pass on serious accusations to the House Committee on Ethics. Republicans want to block the office from hiring staff, impose term limits that would remove several Democratic board members, and otherwise prevent it from doing useful work. The effect of these changes would be to severely undermine the office’s nonpartisan mandate. Without a strong and independent ethics office, both parties in the House will be even more inclined to ignore wrongdoing.

Agree or disagree with House Democrats: At least they knew what they wanted to accomplish while in office. There’s no shortage of pressing issues facing the country, and there’s no shortage of good ideas for addressing them. No matter who is elected speaker, Americans need Republicans in Congress to come up with an agenda that doesn’t look like it was drawn up to protect scoundrels and swindlers.

— Bloomberg Opinion


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