Kevin McCarthy’s Hollow Victory Will Have Economic and Political Consequences
If the new House Speaker is to get anything done, he will need to retain the support of far-right extremists.
By John Cassidy
January 7, 2023
Early Saturday morning, amid scenes redolent of the nineteenth century, when brawls occasionally broke out on the floor of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy was elected Speaker of the 118th Congress. After it was all over—after McCarthy had angrily confronted the holdout Matt Gaetz in full view of the C-span cameras; after a fellow-congressman had to grab the McCarthy ally Mike Rogers, of Alabama, around the throat to keep him from lunging at Gaetz; after enough of the holdouts had finally agreed to end this four-day political debacle in a fifteenth ballot—after all that, the best the fifty-seven-year-old Californian could manage, when his Democratic opponent Hakeem Jeffries finally handed him the wooden gavel, was a lame wisecrack, followed by a telling admission. “That was easy, huh?” McCarthy said. “I never thought we’d get up here.”
Be careful what you wish for. Perhaps the most revealing image of the ugly night came shortly after the final ballot had been completed. As McCarthy sat waiting for the official tally, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right election denier and conspiracy theorist who represents Georgia’s Fourteenth District, crouched down beside him to take a cheek-to-cheek picture with the soon-to-be Speaker. In February, 2021, eleven House Republicans voted with the Democrats to strip Greene of her committee assignments. McCarthy wasn’t among them, but he did issue a statement “unequivocally” condemning some of her incendiary statements, which included endorsing political violence against Democrats and suggesting that some school shootings had been staged. After McCarthy’s tortuous elevation, things are very different. In return for backing McCarthy, Greene will likely receive new committee assignments and be treated, by Party leaders, as an important ally, despite the fact that just last month she said the January 6th insurrection would have succeeded if she and Steve Bannon had been in charge of it. Based on his own self-serving modus operandi, McCarthy doesn’t have much choice but to comply; if he is to get anything done over the next two years, he will need to retain the support of Greene and many other far-right extremists.
This prospect is already raising alarms on Wall Street, where attention is focussing on the need to raise the debt ceiling and prevent a U.S. government default—an imperative that will probably become pressing by the summer. Earlier this week, Representative Ralph Norman, of South Carolina, who is a member of the Freedom Caucus, called on McCarthy to “shut down the government rather than raise the debt ceiling,” adding that this demand was “a non-negotiable item.” In this instance, it would be a mistake to focus exclusively on the maga crazies: months ago, McCarthy and Senator John Thune, of South Dakota, both made clear that they favored using the debt limit to force big cuts in spending. But McCarthy’s humiliation has made clear how little flexibility he will have in managing his own caucus during the debt-ceiling brinkmanship.
A repeat of the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis, in which the G.O.P.-led House of Representatives defied President Barack Obama, now seems likely, and it could be a lengthy one. Ultimately, perhaps, even the members of the Freedom Caucus won’t want to be held responsible for a financial crash that tanks their voters’ 401(k) plans and endangers the mighty dollar, especially at the start of another Presidential-election campaign. But who really knows?
More immediately, McCarthy’s hollow victory opens the way for months more of G.O.P. performance art, which will likely encompass passing legislation that has no chance of being enacted by the Democratic-controlled Senate and holding innumerable conspiracy-theory-stoking hearings into the covid-19 pandemic, Hunter Biden, and anything else that might garner favorable coverage on Fox News and Newsmax. Along the way, the enduring fealty of many House Republicans to Donald Trump is also likely to become clear.
The new rules agreement for the 118th Congress, to which McCarthy acceded in order to win over the maga holdouts, and which will almost certainly be voted through on Monday, calls for the establishment of three new investigative subcommittees. The first would look into the origins and handling of the pandemic, and would surely zero in on Anthony Fauci, a frequent target of right-wing attacks. The second would examine “the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.” And the third would address the “Weaponization of the Federal Government”—more or less the adoption of a far-right slogan that implies the “Deep State” is targeting ordinary American citizens.
In a letter to his fellow-Republicans last week, McCarthy said this third panel would be modelled on the nineteen-seventies Church Committee, which examined abuses by the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the I.R.S., and the National Security Agency. Characterizing it this way makes a mockery of history. Senator Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat who led the bipartisan Church Committee, was an Army veteran who turned against the Vietnam War and also campaigned for environmental protection. The new subcommittee would operate under the auspices of the House Judiciary Committee, which Jim Jordan, the right-wing Ohio firebrand who led Trump’s impeachment defense in January, 2021, is expected to chair. Under the proposed rules agreement, the subcommittee would have the authority to examine “how executive branch agencies collect, compile, analyze, use, or disseminate information about citizens of the United States, including any unconstitutional, illegal, or unethical activities committed against citizens of the United States.” The agreement also states explicitly that this authority would extend to “ongoing criminal investigations.” On Saturday, Politico reported that this reference appeared to have been added to the rules during last-minute negotiations between McCarthy and his ultra-right opponents. Although Trump is not named explicitly, the added language would appear to give the new subcommittee license to look into, and perhaps hold up, the Justice Department’s investigations of his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his post-Presidential mishandling of hundreds of classified documents. In a televised interview, David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida, said that the establishment of the committee was almost like legitimizing the January 6th insurrection.
That helps explain why Trump supported McCarthy to the end. (During the drama on Friday night, the Lear of Mar-a-Lago called several maga holdouts to ask them to support the beleaguered Californian.) But it doesn’t explain how the Republican Party has been reduced to this sorry state, or why McCarthy would still want the job of Speaker in these circumstances. For some questions, there are no good answers. ♦