scorecardHow a vacant House of Representatives could cripple US national security: 'Just a matter of luck at this point'
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How a vacant House of Representatives could cripple US national security: 'Just a matter of luck at this point'

Warren Rojas,Sonam Sheth,Brent D. Griffiths   

How a vacant House of Representatives could cripple US national security: 'Just a matter of luck at this point'
PoliticsPolitics3 min read
Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California.    Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
  • The House has been vacant for nearly four days as McCarthy loses bid after bid to become speaker.
  • Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are sounding the alarm about how a nonfunctional House hurts national security.

The House of Representatives has had zero members for four days now, and until a new speaker is elected, the legislative body is out-of-action — members cannot be sworn in, resolutions cannot be debated, and bills cannot be passed.

Rep.-elect Byron Donalds, one of the Republicans who has challenged Rep.-elect Kevin McCarthy's bid for speaker, said this week that it's no big deal. "If a national security crisis arises, the President of the United States is right down the street," he said.

But most lawmakers, congressional veterans, and outside experts disagreed, saying that a vacant House risks disrupting the US's security and hamstringing the country in the event of a national crisis.

"Every single day that we lose, sitting on this floor, going through the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, the 12th round … Our military continues to weaken itself as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea's geopolitical alignment grows stronger and stronger," freshman Rep.-elect Cory Mills, a Florida Republican and Army veteran, told Insider in between votes at the Capitol.

"And we basically aren't doing what we were elected to do, which is to govern and to be legislators," he added.

Experts say the US's security is increasingly vulnerable as the standoff continues in these areas:

  • In the absence of a functioning House of Representatives, Congress cannot function as a check on the president in the event that he decides to go to war. The War Powers Act of 1973 says the president can only commit US forces to armed conflicts abroad with congressional approval.
  • The US government is funded through the end of September, but without a fully operational House lawmakers could not approve emergency spending bills to respond to terrorism, pandemics or widespread natural disasters.
  • Lawmakers do not have access to US intelligence briefings since they have not yet been sworn in and therefore don't have security clearances.

Republican Rep.-elect Mike Gallagher, one of McCarthy's allies, said at a news conference earlier this week that he and his colleagues couldn't receive intelligence briefings in a secure room known as a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) because they don't have the clearance.

"I'm informed by House Security that, technically, I don't have a clearance," Gallagher, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer, told reporters. "I'm a member of the [House Intelligence Committee], I'm on the Armed Services Committee, and I can't meet in the SCIF to conduct essential business."

Mike Gallagher talks with Chip Roy on the House floor
Republican Reps-elect Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin (right) talks with Chip Roy of Texas (center) on the House floor. Roy has been one of the holdouts, repeatedly voting against Rep.-elect Kevin McCarthy for speaker.      Andrew Harnik/AP

The House, along with the Senate, has passed spending bills to aid in national emergencies, and has recently used them to increase support for Ukraine's embattled military against the Russian invaders.

Multiple lawmakers have told reporters that they have tried to set up meetings with Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, only to be rebuffed because of the clearance issue.

"Listen, the free world will be fine without me getting that brief, but right now I can't do my job," Gallagher, who was scheduled to meet with Milley, told reporters just off the House floor on Thursday. "We can't get to work."

The concern was echoed by Rep.-elect Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican who said at the news conference that members of the House Intelligence Committee "don't have access to anything."

Rep.-elect Hakeem Jeffries — whom Democrats have repeatedly nominated this week for House speaker — also criticized his Republican counterparts, telling congressional reporters it was time for them to "get their act together."

Jeffries pointed to a number of domestic and foreign policy issues including inflationary pressure and Russia's war against Ukraine, saying that they all "require the attention of the United States House of Representatives."

Rep.-elect Katharine Clark, who will serve as House Democratic Whip once the chamber officially gets going this session, warned that every day Congress doesn't reconvene threatens the US's security.

"It is just a matter of luck at this point, that there is not something we miss because of this profound dysfunction in the Republican Party," the six-term lawmaker said during a Capitol Hill press conference. "They are imperiling our country as they continue their pursuit for this speakership, putting the American people and our democracy in their rearview mirror."

Rep.-elect Don Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, echoed President Joe Biden in saying that the chaos enables US adversaries.

"President Xi says, 'Our system of governance works because democracy don't,'" Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, told reporters. "Right now, they are looking at these 20 people and saying, 'See, democracy don't work.'"