Last week during the 15 votes for a new Speaker of House, C-SPAN showed a side of congressional debates usually hidden from view. Without a speaker setting the rules for what occurs in the chamber, C-SPAN controlled the camera angles. Thus, they filmed members — and bored kids waiting for their parents to be sworn in — mingling throughout the House chamber. Viewers at home could see how members were reacting to speeches, side conversations as people sought to end the impasse, and even a moment when a couple of members nearly went to blows. Ben Jacobs of Intelligencer called the four days of unrestricted footage, “C-SPAN gone wild.”
Because of the cameras, there’s a moment that might otherwise have been missed. As House Chaplain Margaret Kibben opened the evening session last Friday (Jan. 6), C-SPAN didn’t stay focused on her. We saw shots of members during the prayer, many with heads bowed while others looked around or even typed on their phones (presumably not to God).
Then as she ended, there’s footage of Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the key Republicans who thwarted Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s speaker bid for four days, standing next to McCarthy aide John Leganski. After briefly pausing their last-minute negotiations during the prayer, Gaetz mouthed “amen” and immediately turned back to Leganski. The two exchanged words and Leganski placed his hand on Gatez’s shoulder before the conservative congressman from Florida walked off upset.
Then came the 14th round of voting. Gaetz surprised people by not responding when the clerk called his name. That meant she would return to him after going through the alphabet of 434 members. In dramatic fashion, McCarthy’s win on that ballot came down to Gaetz. He voted “present,” which put the Republican leader one vote short. McCarthy quickly strolled toward Gaetz, with Leganski and others in tow. Gaetz and McCarthy exchanged heated words — caught on film by C-SPAN — before McCarthy walked off dejected. A few moments later, another Republican supporting McCarthy lunged at Gaetz and was restrained by his colleagues (which was almost a bit too on the nose way of marking the second anniversary of the Capitol riot).
A few whispers at prayer time led into a dramatic vote and a near altercation on the House floor. In many ways, it proved that Kibben’s prayer that night wasn’t answered as she expressed hope that they could “reconcile our differences with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” But one part of her prayer did come true on the next round of balloting: “Dear God, it seems this evening we may be at last standing at the threshold of a new Congress.”
Throughout her prayers that week, Kibben took sides in the intraparty squabble over who should lead the House. While such politics within prayers of congressional chaplains is not unusual, Kibben’s prayers last week particularly highlighted the political nature of the daily remarks by the religious officer of the House. That should raise questions about whether the nation should give a privileged platform to a minister who is not an elected member of Congress.
This issue of A Public Witness will review the position of congressional chaplain before analyzing last week’s House prayers during the battle to elect a new speaker. Then it will close with a benediction contemplating a better way of thinking about religion and politics.