Speaker delay halts national security briefings for lawmakers

(The Hill) – The disorder in the House is leaving lawmakers fuming over their inability to stay apprised on national security matters, as it is blocking them from entering classified briefings or meeting with top officials. 

Lawmakers say they can’t even go into a special room known as the sensitive compartmented information facility or SCIF where they discuss top-secret information with national security officials.  

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) said he was blocked from entering the SCIF by security as he arrived for a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on “matters in the Indo-Pacific.”  

“I’m informed by House security that technically, I don’t have a clearance. I’m a member of the Intel Committee. I’m on the Armed Services Committee, and I can’t meet in the SCIF to conduct essential business. My point is we have work to do that we can’t do right now,” he said at a press conference alongside other Republicans pleading for a quick resolution to Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) quest for the gavel.  

McCarthy supporters are largely sounding the alarm on the national security issue as they try to pressure opponents to reach a deal on the Speaker fight. McCarthy lost an eighth straight ballot to become Speaker on Thursday afternoon. 

Incoming chairs for the House intelligence, Armed Services, and Foreign Affairs committees complained the delay is hindering their oversight of the Biden administration — a top priority for the GOP majority.  

“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 Turner (Ohio), Mike Rogers (Ala.), and Michael McCaul (Texas) said in a statement. 

Lawmakers don’t directly hold security clearances but are deemed trustworthy for receiving such information simply by the office they hold.  

Other briefings are restricted by committee membership — and the committees cannot be formally comprised until a Speaker is elected.  

“No members have clearances. Our election is supposed to be our vetting process. But the rules only let Intel Committee members view certain materials, the vast majority of the classified materials, and until we’re constituted, members really aren’t able to get those kinds of briefings or accesses,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who lead the intelligence committee during the prior session.  

Talks to reach a deal among Republicans to make McCarthy the Speaker have not been successful so far. 

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who is among those opposing McCarthy, suggested in comments Thursday that it could take much more work to reach a deal. One of the concessions that has been discussed is a proposal that would allow a single member of Congress to force a vote to oust the Speaker. 

“There is a trust issue with the gentleman who wants to be Speaker,” Perry said. “It is hard to restore trust in just a month or two and it’s really hard to betray confidences in a meeting where the details are then leaked out to the press.” 

The group has also floated having members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus be appointed as subcommittee chairs, subverting the normal process. The idea has drawn pushback from Rogers, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, who characterized it as “insane.”  

“As if Kevin McCarthy or any Speaker magically gets to tell members, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m giving your seat to somebody else who’s an aggravation to the conference,’” Rogers told The Hill. “It just shows how insane they are.”  

The total freeze has also led to an interesting dynamic.  

A GOP staffer told The Hill that staff who receive security clearances due to the nature of their work are still able to access the SCIF and receive briefings, even as lawmakers cannot.  

“Nobody on our committee can go down and get briefed on things,” Schiff said.  

“The committee will need to be reconstituted. And most of the materials are only accessible to members of the committee and until reconstituted there are no members of the committee,” he told The Hill. “So Intel is more impacted really than probably just about any other committee.” 

The Intelligence Committee’s formation is more complicated than some other House panels, with members typically seeking waivers to bypass limitations on how many terms a member can sit on the panel — a nod to the importance of institutional knowledge in the constant churn of Congress. 

“Every delay here has a compounding impact. Because the first thing that happens, there has to be a Speaker. Then committees are constituted, but Intel is a select committee. So the leader on the minority side and the Speaker have to agree to ratios. Then they have to work out other waivers that have to take place. Who’s the rank[ing member] or who’s the chairman, all these things take time,”Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who will need a wavier to continue to serve on the panel. 

Some see the shutdown of the House over the Speaker fight as embarrassing and worry it could have negative real-world consequences.  

McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Hill on Thursday that he was worried about missing classified hearings on matters like Syria and the war in Ukraine. 

“Classified briefings about things like that Iran bombed our base in Syria,” he said. “You know, what’s going on in China and Taiwan? What’s going on in Ukraine? We don’t have time to get our classified briefings.” 

Quigley said it doesn’t take more than just a few days for lawmakers to fall behind on world affairs. 

“The world doesn’t stop because one caucus can’t agree. And a couple of days is one thing. Beyond that, it gets complicated and eventually dangerous. You’re flying blind. You don’t know what’s happening,” he said. 

Gallagher said the standoff risks hurting the nation’s global standing. 

“We’ve seen what happens over the last two years. When deterrence fails, when weakness invites aggression. It’s up to this Congress to restore deterrence, to restore peace through strength, but we aren’t able to do that vital work until we actually get past the Speaker vote, populate our committees and start getting to work,” he said.  

In some corners, the ire is only growing at the 20 lawmakers objecting to McCarthy’s leadership. 

“We have business, serious business, to do. This is not the place to be frivolous,” Rogers said. 

“And we’ve got some people who are being very frivolous right now.”