Matt Gaetz and the House Chaos Caucus

The Wall Street Journal

A stupid, needless government shutdown looms. The culprits aren’t Democrats but hard-right House Republicans who say they won’t agree to a bipartisan continuing resolution to fund the government when the fiscal year ends at midnight Saturday.

They mean it. Twice last week, five Republicans voted with Democrats to stop the House from taking up a Republican-drafted Defense Department appropriations bill. It was an unprecedented breach of party discipline.

This Chaos Caucus’s leader, Florida’s reckless Rep. Matt Gaetz, is practically giddy at the prospect of a shutdown. Though he voted for the Pentagon funding bill to protect his Armed Services Committee seat, he is heading the opposition to a bipartisan continuing resolution. Failure to enact such a stopgap measure this week would mean a shutdown, which Mr. Gaetz predicts in six or eight days will produce “maximum momentum on paradigm-changing” pressure on Democrats to make deep spending cuts.

What blather. Democrats know that when federal offices are shuttered, services curtailed and our military goes without pay, voters generally blame Republicans. And this time they’d be right to do so. Knowing this, Democrats will insist on significant concessions to reopen the government. The shutdown could go on far longer than its advocates predict, and each additional day will provoke more public anger at the GOP.

The damage will likely go well beyond the shutdown. There are 18 GOP representatives in districts President Biden carried in 2020 that will be endangered by these shenanigans. Republicans won the five closest races that flipped control of the House by a combined 7,169 votes of 1,379,398 cast. It doesn’t take many stupid stunts to lose that many votes.

The Chaos Caucus is willing to risk the GOP’s narrow majority because they believe, as Virginia Rep. Bob Good puts it, that most Americans “won’t even miss it if the government is shut down temporarily.” As Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil says, “Riiiighhht.”

When power in Washington is divided between a Democratic president and Senate and a GOP House, the only way for Republicans to make fiscal progress is to negotiate patiently, provide strong and effective messaging and make Democrats take tough votes. It’s the height of arrogance and ignorance to assume that this time—unlike every other time—shutting down the government will make the White House and Senate Democrats give in.

But Mr. Gaetz and his band of egotistical performance artists either are certain they’re the exception to history or don’t care. Take Chaos Caucus member and Arizona freshman Eli Crane. Based on his vast governing experience, he declared in a video during his workout in the House gym, “The only way we’re going to get any change in this town is through force.” Not by persuasion or legislation, but “through force,” as if that phrase means anything.

This amateurish narcissism is perhaps unsurprising, considering the ingrates in the Chaos Caucus. Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s fundraising entities—the Congress Leadership Fund and Take Back the House PAC—and the National Republican Congressional Committee spent a combined $2.8 million to elect Mr. Crane in 2022. He won by 8%. He has repaid Mr. McCarthy’s generosity by raising a mere $1,000 for the NRCC this cycle, and he supports removing the speaker if the House passes a bipartisan budget deal.

Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale was another GOP nay vote on the defense bill. He received $600,289 of support from the McCarthy PACs, mostly for his competitive 2020 race. This cycle he’s raised $5,000 for the NRCC.

North Carolina Rep. Dan Bishop was another nay vote last week. The NRCC plowed $3.1 million into his 2019 special election and Mr. McCarthy’s PACs $2.6 million. He won by 2%. He’s raised nothing for the NRCC this cycle—he’s leaving Congress and is busy running for state attorney general.

Then there’s Mr. Gaetz, safe in his deep-red Florida district. He’s one of the GOP’s most prodigious fundraisers, collecting $6.7 million last cycle. But he raised zero for the NRCC last cycle and this. That won’t change. He’s likely hoarding cash for a 2026 gubernatorial run.

Mr. Gaetz and his fellow travelers forget that conservative progress in Congress requires team effort and that the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good—especially when Democrats control the Senate and White House.

Believing that less than two dozen GOP members can dictate to the rest of the government—particularly a hostile Senate and president—is fantasy. It’s also a perversion of the vision the Founders had of a national legislature where power was diffused, compromise essential and incremental change desired.

Because the Chaos Caucus won’t grow up, a shutdown is likely. That will hurt America—and Republicans. This sort of self-absorbed performance art comes with a political cost.

Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads and is author of “The Triumph of William McKinley” (Simon & Schuster, 2015).