Cigar smoke, dogs and no metal detectors: The bizarre first two weeks of a Republican-controlled House

 (AP/Reuters/Shutterstock/Getty/The Independent)
(AP/Reuters/Shutterstock/Getty/The Independent)

This week, as many Republicans filed into the House chamber, they often jokingly raised up their arms, mimicking the way they used to have to raise them as they went through metal detectors last year. During the last Congress, such magnometer checks were compulsory.

The anti-metal detector GOP crusade has being going on for a while. Last year, as I tried to catch Lauren Boebert for a question, she maneuvered her way around me — and around the magnetometers — in order to go and vote. It was a small but significant act of rebellion.

Boebert was notably part of a group of insurgent Republicans that opposed McCarthy’s nomination to the speakership. But this week, the Colorado Republican Congresswoman — who once ran a restaurant in the town of Rifle where the waitresses carried guns — praised the fact that she no longer had to go through magnetometers, telling a fellow Republican, “It’s almost like America.”

Most Republicans chafed at having to go through the metal detectors that were put in place after the January 6 riot, even though they would have to pay fines if they circumvented them. Of course, many forget that the whole reason former speaker Nancy Pelosi put the magnetometers in place was because of the fact that now-former representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina talked publicly about being armed during the insurrection at the US Capitol.

Republicans moved heaven and earth to remove Cawthorn from his seat during the primary in May of last year. Magnetometers have now gone the same way as the wayward one-term congressman.

Throughout the House’s first two weeks — along with the fact that there was no speaker for the first few days — the halls of Congress have definitely had a different energy to when they were under Democratic control. I first moved to DC when Republicans controlled the House during the Tea Party era that saw conservative insurgents shove out John Boehner. I also covered Congress when Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the White House during Donald Trump’s presidency. I’m no stranger to GOP-controlled spaces in government. But I know a weird energy when I feel one.

The House, replete with 435 members and nonvoting delegates who represent every swath of the country, has always been much more feisty, puerile, backbiting and sharp-elbowed than the country club of 100 that is the United States Senate. The contrast is now even more distinct. Perhaps it’s because of who’s left standing. Two years ago, a majority of the House GOP conference voted to object to the election results, essentially attempting to undo a democratic vote. The Republicans who voted to impeach Trump or try to hold him accountable during his term have largely left.

And the chaos surrounding the speaker vote kicked off this new House in spectacular style. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has promoted conspiracy theories and spoke at a conference held by white nationalist Nick Fuentes, surprised everyone by coming out on McCarthy’s side. Florida Representative Matt Gaetz stalled the vote with some last-minute opposition, and in doing so almost ended up in a fistfight with Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama.

Amid this chaos, it emerged that Representative George Santos, the newly-elected Republican from Long Island, appeared to have fabricated his entire life story and his résumé. Santos had lied about where he went to college, where he worked, whether he was Jewish (he isn’t, though apparently he’s “Jew-ish”), and made questionable claims about 9/11 “claiming his mother’s life,” despite the fact that she died in 2016.

Unsurprisingly, the House felt pretty much like a free-for-all most of the time during the past couple weeks — even after a speaker was elected. The fact that the more subdued Senate high-tailed it immediately after the swearing-in of new Senators very much gave the House a feeling of a dad giving the teenager the keys to the convertible for the weekend. Without any consequential votes for must-pass legislation, they let the good times roll.

Throughout most of the 117th Congress, Republicans grumbled about many of the rules that Pelosi put in place, such as allowing proxy voting during the Covid pandemic, which some called unconstitutional. Others blew off when she reinstated a mask mandate during the surge of the Delta variant.

McCarthy, therefore, wanted to do away with proxy voting after taking control — despite the fact that many of his Republican colleagues used it regularly (Matt Gaetz used proxy voting more than 100 times as of last year, according to Business Insider.)

Ironically, a lack of proxy voting might have protracted out the vote for speaker. At one point during the last votes, the House had to delay because Representative Ken Buck of Colorado had health issues and newly-elected Representative Wesley Hunt of Texas had returned home after his son was born prematurely.

Of course, the lack of a speaker vote meant that there were technically no rules in the House. Some members and staffers took advantage of the no-rules environment by bringing their dogs to the Hill. Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina brought along her dog Liberty (or Libby for short), a bichon type known as a Havanese.

And then there was the return of literal smoke-filled rooms. If there are no rules, there are no smoking bans, either. Members smoked on the congressional balconies as speaker vote after speaker vote was conducted. Reuters’ reporter Patricia Zengerle tweeted about the distinct aroma of cigar smoke in the halls (and indeed, incoming House Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole, whose office is not too far from the House floor, does exude the stench of his cigars.)

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Representative Troy Nehls of Texas, whom I often see with a stogie in hand as he’s going up to votes, tweeted in response: “It’s called progress” with the hashtag #Freedom.

Of course, the party can’t last forever. The House passed its rules package this week. Now, it is mostly focused on messaging bills about abortion. But on Friday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen sent a letter to McCarthy, warning that the US will hit the debt limit next week. That sets him up for his first big fight with the right flank of the GOP.

McCarthy better hope that John Boehner, who famously loved to smoke Camels in his office, left a pack of smokes for him.