Here's how the House speaker debacle is paralyzing the U.S. Congress

The chair of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives sits empty as the House embarks on another round of voting for a new House Speaker on the second day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 4, 2023. 

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

In her prayer pleading for an end to the “imbroglio of indecision” roiling the House of Representatives, the chamber’s chaplain sounded an alarm Thursday about the risk to the U.S. of not electing a speaker during a historic standoff that has effectively paralyzed the legislative branch of government.

“Watch over the seeming discontinuity of our governance, and the perceived vulnerability of our national security. Build your hedge of protection against those who would take advantage of our discord for their own gain,” said House Chaplain Margaret Kibben as she opened a third day of voting to elect the top official in the House.

Kibben wasn’t the only one worried about how the government would function after the new Republican majority failed to elect a House speaker during the first two days of the 118th Congress. As GOP leader Kevin McCarthy enters Thursday showing few signs of breaking an impasse with hardline conservative holdouts, it could take days more to fill the top House post.

The once-in-a-century stalemate has frozen governance in one of the two chambers of Congress. The longer the infighting prevents the election of a speaker, the more havoc it will wreak on the federal government.

While the lack of a speaker doesn’t pose an imminent threat to the U.S. economy, it paralyzes all action on the Hill. That could be especially detrimental if the nation were to face a major catastrophe that needed quick congressional votes or approval on emergency spending, as it did in the Sept. 11th attacks or during Covid.

Republicans still deadlocked over who should be Speaker of the House

As of Thursday, the chamber could not pass legislation or respond to a national emergency. Representatives-elect had not taken office, as the speaker swears them in after the election.

Representatives-elect across the country cannot provide formal services for constituents. Those include help with receiving federal benefits or recovering missing payments from the government.

“We cannot organize our district offices, get our new members doing that political work of our constituent services, helping serve the people who sent us here on their behalf,” incoming Democratic Whip Katherine Clark, D-Mass., told reporters in the Capitol Thursday morning.

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Within the House, the lack of a speaker has prevented the chamber from voting on a rules package governing the new Congress. The stalemate has stopped Republicans from installing their committee chairs or starting work on the panels.

If the House does not pass rules by Jan. 13, committee staff could start to lose pay, according to guidance sent to those panels reported by Politico.

The delays could also disrupt student loan forgiveness programs for House employees, the report said.

Lawmakers causing the chaos may not share in their staff’s pain. The pay period for House members typically begins Jan. 3, even if the new Congress starts later.

Democrats also emphasized that the absence of a speaker was threatening U.S. national security by keeping members of Congress from accessing classified intelligence that is only available to lawmakers after they have taken the oath of office, which none of them can take without a speaker.

Without committee chairs, they also cannot hold hearings; investigations underway in the last Congress come to a standstill. The debacle has delayed promised GOP-led committee probes into the Biden administration, which appear likely to dominate the early days of the new divided government.

In making their case to elect McCarthy and end the logjam, three likely incoming GOP committee chairs argued the delay has hampered their ability to protect national security and oversee the Biden administration.

“The Biden administration is going unchecked and there is no oversight of the White House, State Department, Department of Defense, or the intelligence community. We cannot let personal politics place the safety and security of the United States at risk,” Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Texas; Mike Rogers, R-Ala.; and Mike Turner, R-Ohio said in a statement Thursday. The lawmakers are in line to lead the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, respectively.

Congress has already passed legislation funding the government through Sept. 30, at least removing the threat of a shutdown that could have displaced federal workers and disrupted government functions early this year.

— CNBC’s Chelsey Cox and Christina Wilkie contributed to this article.