The House’s inability to select a speaker is impacting US national security, Republican and Democratic lawmakers and staffers say, as members who can’t yet be sworn in are being locked out of classified briefings and the Biden administration is effectively operating without House oversight.
At a minimum, House members are not staying informed of day-to-day national security developments because they cannot receive a security clearance until they are sworn in. But at its most extreme, the impasse also means that the current Congress is not in a position to either authorize or stop a war, staffers and experts told CNN.
“I’m a member of the House (Intelligence) Committee. I’m on the Armed Services Committee, and I can’t meet in the (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) to conduct essential business” Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican, said in a press conference on Wednesday, referring to the place that is used by military and national security officials to process sensitive and classified information. He added that he was denied entry to a meeting with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley because he does not yet have a security clearance.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, also said he is concerned about the national security implications of the impasse on Thursday afternoon, as McCarthy failed in a seventh vote.
“It’s bad. It’s really bad,” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t have access to the SCIF right now, because I’m not sworn in. I can’t get my China briefing, my Ukraine briefing, my Iran briefing.”
Fitzpatrick added, “A third of our government’s offline right now. It’s very dangerous.”
Not only are those members barred from briefings, the key national security committees they would normally sit on cannot even be formed yet – including the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees, which oversee the intelligence community and the Pentagon, respectively.
In a small but revealing detail, the House Armed Services and GOP Foreign Affairs Committee websites were still offline as of Thursday.
“The committees don’t technically exist in this Congress until they convene, vote on the rules of the committee and basically vote themselves into existence,” said former House Armed Services Committee staffer Jonathan Lord, who now serves as director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. “So all of the oversight work that those committees do on a day-to-day basis can’t officially go on.”
The White House told agencies and departments earlier this week that the administration would continue its work with Congress as usual, people familiar with the matter said, and there have been some informal briefings for still-cleared staffers even amid the uncertainty of the speakership race. In a strange twist, however, if the information is classified, those staffers cannot then brief their bosses on the intelligence since they don’t yet have a security clearance.
On a more formal level, if the State Department wanted to officially notify the House Foreign Affairs Committee of a foreign military sale, for example, “there technically isn’t a committee yet to receive it,” Lord said.
The world is taking notice, too. One Western diplomat called it “a s*** show.”
“Honest to God this is what we wrote yesterday” in a cable to their capital, the diplomat said. They said there is agreement from their capital on that assessment.
This diplomat said they’re “concerned because it has implications for how the House can address pressing issues around the world and the United States’ bilateral relations with its global partners.”
Another foreign diplomat said they “are just waiting to see what happens,” noting that “this is an exceptional situation but the US is not the only Western country with political deadlocks.”
“What I’m personally looking at is the policy concessions (prospective House Speaker Kevin) McCarthy has to make, and if they are going to affect US role in the world,” the diplomat told CNN.
More drastically, if the president were to enter US forces into hostilities, the War Powers Act requires that he notify Congress within 48 hours, and the Congress then has 60 days to determine its legality. But as it stands now, Congress would not be in a position to either immediately stop or authorize that use of force. “That is something that the Congress can not determine its current state,” Lord said.
A congressional staffer echoed those concerns to CNN.
“Nothing can happen until leadership is decided, then committee chair elections happen,” this person said. “Then, after that, they select members for committees and subcommittee chairs. Only after that can anything substantive – like hearings, legislation or member-level briefings – happen. Otherwise it is all still on hold. Soon, it will be a national security issue. Committees like Armed Services and Intelligence are also affected, and it is concerning to us all.”
Some believe the concerns are overblown – at least for now. Former GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who is now a CNN senior political commentator, told “CNN This Morning” that while the situation is “serious,” he does not believe that “a few days of not finding a speaker is really the end of the world.”
“Because keep in mind there are governments, like parliaments, that go months without forming a government,” he said.
But Kinzinger noted that more broadly, the situation is hugely problematic because the House in its current form exists for “only one reason – to elect a Speaker … that includes things like coming in and getting briefings, having discussions about the next round of aid to Ukraine. A few days we can handle. Even a few weeks we can handle. If this thing goes on, it starts to have dangerous impacts.”